Patrons at a New Jersey restaurant drank themselves into a fury watching their favorite sporting event. The staff on duty realized they couldn't handle the situation and did what they thought best-- called the police. When the police officer arrived, however, the indomitable drunks pummeled him. The police officer then sued the restaurant owner for negligence.
The case went as far as the New Jersey Supreme Court. The result--a victory for the police officer and the end to the so-called firefighters rule. The New Jersey Supreme Court found in its March 13 decision in Harry Ruiz v. Angel Mero that first responders can sue. The court's decision reinforced a state law from the early 1990s that abolished the firefighters law.
"It should be the final word," says Josh Greenbaum, a member of Cozen O'Connor's Commercial Litigation Practice Group out of the Philadelphia office.
The firefighters rule is the common-law doctrine that police officers and firefighters cannot sue business owners, homeowners or other parties when called on-site during an emergency.
"That was their job and/or they were assuming the risk," explains Greenbaum of the assumption behind it.
Citizens in distress also should not be dissuaded from calling first responders because of potential charges of liability, the old thinking went.
New Jersey is not alone in tossing out the rule. Greenbaum says the court's ruling is part of a "growing trend"--with states such as Minnesota, New York, Colorado and Oregon doing away with the firefighters rule through legislation or court action.
For risk managers at Atlantic City gaming operations--where drinks are given out for free on the casino floor--and at other hospitality establishments that serve alcohol in New Jersey and these other states, the rules of the game have not changed very much. They should continue to emphasize policies and procedures that help staff monitor guest alcohol consumption, avoid altercations and protect third parties from injury, says Greenbaum. What's changed is there's another name on the list of third parties to worry about.
"If they're either serving somebody who's visibly intoxicated or underage and it results in some type of activity that requires a first responder to come," he says, "that may be another class of plaintiffs."
In the event a lawsuit does result from a first responder, a general liability or liquor liability policy could cover the claim, Greenbaum says.
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July 1, 2007
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