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Bill would allow police to sue people who injure them on the job

A police union is pushing for a new law that would overturn years of legal precedent by allowing cops to sue people who caused them injuries on duty.

The proposed provision, found in SB1186, would end the state’s use of the “fireman’s rule,” a long held legal doctrine built on the premise that first responders such as police, firefighters and medics can’t sue the people who caused their injuries because they entered their risky professions voluntarily and are compensated by some public benefit like workers’ compensation.

Four states have either abolished or limited the rule through legal precedent during the past 27 years and five state legislatures have either abolished or limited it since 2000. Don Isaacson, a lobbyist for the Fraternal Order of Police, the union that brought the legislation, said those states have recognized that normal principles of personal injury law apply to police officers and firefighters.

“If a police officer pulls off to the side of the road and somebody plows into the car — hurts or kills them — they should be able to sue, but under the fireman’s rule they would not be able to sue or their family (either),” Isaacson said.  “It is a move to reflect what is going on in a lot of states in the country.”

The bill specifically refers to police officers being exempt from the rule. Isaacson said it will be up to the other rescue professions to get their own exemptions.

The bill probably won’t go unchallenged, though.

The Arizona Association of Defense Counsel filed amicus briefs in favor of the rule in cases that went to the Arizona Court of Appeals and Arizona Supreme Court recently.

Andrew Petersen, a Tucson lawyer who filed the briefs, said the association hasn’t taken a position on the proposed legislation yet, but the bill will probably be the subject of discussion at its next meeting.

“It’s a good rule,” Petersen said. “This is just going to expose the public, homeowners, and business owners, to the specter of lawsuits.”

Petersen pointed to a 2007 Indiana Law Journal article in which the author, Robert H. Heidt, argued that abolishing the rule will invite many more lawsuits since “more than half of police and fire perils can be attributed to the negligence of some potential defendants.”

Fireman’s rule case law dates back to the 1980s in Arizona.

In the 2008 Court of Appeals case, the survivors of Phoenix Police officers Jason Wolfe and Eric White, who were gunned down in 2004 by a mentally disturbed man, sued the state, Maricopa County, a suicide prevention center, the county’s indigent mental health provider and a doctor.

The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants failed to properly diagnose and treat Doug Tatar, which amounted to negligence, and the deaths of the officers resulted from the negligence.

The Court of Appeals agreed with a lower court’s ruling that the fireman’s rule barred the plaintiffs from recovery damages.

“Our decision is consistent with the public policy underlying the firefighter’s rule. Officers White and Wolfe were hired, trained, and compensated to confront dangerous situations such as the circumstances presented in this case,” wrote Judge Michael J. Brown on behalf of a unanimous three-judge panel. “It is tragic that these two officers died while performing their duties; however, consistent with the policy rationale for the firefighter’s rule, the losses suffered by their loved ones should be borne by the public as a whole rather than the individuals whose conduct occasioned the need for the officers’ involvement.”

Isaacson said abolishing the rule won’t allow officers to be awarded damages on top of what they get from their benefits.

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that the fireman’s rule doesn’t apply to off-duty rescue workers.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Public Safety and Human Services Committee.

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