Chapter 61: Policeman and Fireman’s Rule

§61.1 Generally

The Case: Carson v. Headrick , 900 S.W.2d 685 (Tenn. 1995).

The Basic Facts: Husband shot police officers as they escorted wife to family home to pick up her belongings. Officers sued wife for failure to warn of danger from husband.

The Bottom Line:

  • "The policemen and firemen's rule precludes firefighters and police officers from recovering damages for injuries arising out of risks peculiar to their employment. The rule originated over one hundred years ago Gibson v. Leonard, [32 N.E. 182 (Ill. 1892)]. In determining the nature and extent of the duty owed a fireman injured when responding to a fire, the Gibson court applied the traditional, premises liability, common-law classification rule. Under that rule, the nature and extent of the duty owed an injured person was determined by classifying the injured person as either an 'invitee,' a 'licensee,' or a 'trespasser.' For example, an injured business patron would be classified as an 'invitee' and owed a duty of reasonable care. By contrast, a landowner owed only the duty to refrain from willfully injuring a social guest, classified as a 'licensee,' or a person coming onto the property without permission, classified as a 'trespasser.' Hudson v. Gaitan, [675 S.W.2d 699, 703 (Tenn. 1984)] (discussing the common law rule)." 900 S.W.2d at 687.
  • "Reasoning that a fireman is privileged to enter property at any place and time, without the owner's permission, the Gibson court classified the injured fireman as a licensee, and therefore held that the landowner owed only the duty to avoid inflicting injury by willful, wanton, or intentional acts. Id.; see also Pottebaum v. Hinds, 347 N.W.2d 642, 644 (Iowa 1984) (discussing the historical origin of the rule)." Id.
  • "In Tennessee, the policemen and firemen's rule was first adopted Burroughs Adding Machine Co. v. Fryar, [179 S.W. 127 (Tenn. 1915)]. There, a police officer was injured as a result of a business owner's negligence. This Court held the policeman could not recover because he was a licensee and
    the authorities are uniform to the effect that the owner of property is under no obligation to a policeman or fireman who goes thereupon in the discharge of his duty, except to refrain from inflicting upon such an officer a willful or wanton injury.
    [Id.; 179 S.W. at 128 (emphasis added)]." Id. at 688.
  • "It is beyond peradventure that the maintenance of organized society requires the presence and protection of firefighters and police officers. The fact is that situations requiring their presence are as inevitable as anything in life can be. It is apparent that these officers are employed for the benefit of society in general, and for people involved in circumstances requiring their presence in particular. The court in Calvert [ v. Garvey Elevators, Inc., [694 P.2d 433 (Kan. 1985)]] noted that '[f]irefighters enter on the premises to discharge their duties. Fire fighters are present upon the premises, not because of any private duty owed the occupant, but because of the duty owed to the public as a whole.' Calvert, supra, [694 P.2d 433]." Id. at 689.
  • "Although jurisdictions are not uniform as to the rationale, the vast majority of courts faced with the issue have reaffirmed the policemen and firemen's rule, despite the abolition of its original premises liability foundation and the merger of assumption of risk with comparative fault." Id. (citations omitted).
  • "After considering the authority from other jurisdictions, and recent Tennessee decisions, we are of the opinion that the policemen and firemen's rule constitutes a logical and sound application of the tort principle of duty. As we have stated on numerous occasions, the existence or nonexistence of a duty owed to the plaintiff by the defendant is entirely a question of law for the court. [W. Keeton, D. Dobbs, R. Keeton & D. Owen, Prosser and Keeton on the Law of Torts, § 37 at 236 (5th ed.1984)] (hereafter Prosser, § ---- at p. ----.); Bradshaw v. Daniel, [854 S.W.2d 865, 869 (Tenn. 1993)]; McClenahan v. Cooley, [806 S.W.2d 767, 774 (Tenn. 1991)]." Id. at 690 (footnote omitted).
  • "We have also said that in determining the existence or nonexistence of a legal duty, a court must consider,
    ... whether, upon the facts in evidence, such a relation exists between the parties that the community will impose a legal obligation upon one for the benefit of others--or, more simply, whether the interest of the plaintiff which has suffered invasion was entitled to legal protection at the hands of the defendant. This is entirely a question of law is to be determined by reference to the body of statutes, rules, principles and precedents which make up the law; and it must be determined only by the court....
    Bradshaw v. Daniel , [854 S.W.2d at 870 (quoting, Lindsey v. Miami Development Corp., 689 S.W.2d 856, 859 (Tenn. 1985) (quoting Prosser, § 37 at 236))].

    In general, we have recognized that
    [i]mposition of a legal duty ... reflects society's contemporary policies and social requirements concerning the right of individuals and the general public to be protected from the acts or conduct of another.
    Bradshaw v. Daniel , 854 S.W.2d at 870 (emphasis added)." Id.
  • "Applying these fundamental concepts, we observe that the preservation of organized society requires the presence and protection of police officers. Situations requiring the presence of police, although commonplace and inevitable, are also routinely dangerous. Public policy considerations, as well as societal expectations, militate against allowing police officers to institute tort actions against a citizen for an injury resulting from a risk the officer is trained and hired to confront. Simply stated, societal policies do not support imposition of a duty of reasonable care upon a citizen calling for police assistance." Id.
  • "Rather, public policy is served when citizens are encouraged to summon aid from police, regardless of their negligence, and are assured that the compensation for injuries sustained by police in the line of duty will be borne by the public as a whole. Pottebaum v. Hinds, 347 N.W.2d at 645; Flowers v. Rock Creek Terrace Ltd. Partnership, [520 A.2d 361 (Md. 1987)]; Kreski v. Modern Wholesale Elec. Supply, 415 N.W.2d at 185. Accordingly, we conclude as a matter of public policy that a citizen owes no duty of reasonable care to police officers responding to that citizen's call for assistance and join the majority of other jurisdictions who have reaffirmed the policemen and firemen's rule on public policy grounds." Id.
  • "A principal exception to the rule that has developed in other states is relevant to the disposition of this case. That exception provides that when a police officer is injured by the intentional, malicious, or reckless acts of a citizen, the action is not barred by the policemen and firemen's rule. See Hodges v. S.C. Toof & Co., [833 S.W.2d 896 (Tenn. 1992)] (defining terms). The rationale for the exception is that police officers are not employed to submit to intentional, reckless, or malicious injury. Moreover, recognition of moral fault as a component of public policy is a common principle of tort law. [Prosser, § 8 and § 37]. Exposing the individual wrongdoer to liability will not only act as a deterrent to others, but it will also relieve the public of the financial burden attributable to the intentional, individual wrongdoer. Prohibiting recovery against one who intentionally, maliciously or recklessly causes injury to police officers stretches the policy considerations supporting the policemen and firemen's rule beyond logical and justifiable limits. As a result, the majority of courts considering the issue have concluded that either by action or inaction, a citizen has a duty to refrain from intentionally, maliciously, or recklessly causing injury to police officers responding to the citizen's call for assistance. Grable v. Varela, supra; Sanderson v. Freedom Sav. & Loan Ass'n., [548 So.2d 221, 222 (Fla. 1989)]; Lang v. Glusica, [393 N.W.2d 181 (Minn. 1986)]; Buchanan v. Prickett & Son, Inc., [279 N.W.2d 855, 858-59 (Neb. 1979)]; Migdal v. Stamp, supra; Mahoney v. Carus Chemical Co. Inc., supra; Krueger v. City of Anaheim, 130 Cal.App.3d 166, 181 Cal.Rptr. 631 (Cal.Ct.App.1982); Kennedy v. Tri-City Health Ctr., supra; Lambert v. Schaefer, [839 S.W.2d 27 (Mo. Ct. App. 1992)]; Ballou v. Nelson, [834 P.2d 97, 100 (Wash. Ct. App. 1992)]; [2 F. Harper & F. James, Law of Torts, § 27.14, 1504 (1956)]; [Best, § 4.20, p. 4-78]. We agree that the exception is well-reasoned and based upon sound public policy considerations and adopt it in Tennessee." Id. at 690-91.
  • "Because the record in this case contains no evidence to establish that the plaintiffs' injuries resulted from the defendant's intentional, malicious, or reckless misconduct, the policemen and firemen's rule bars recovery." Id. at 691.

Other Sources of Note: Jamison v. Ulrich , 206 S.W.3d 419 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2006) (rule applied to animal control officers); Bridges v. City of Memphis, 952 S.W.2d 84 (Tenn. Ct. App. 1997) (rule did not preclude wrongful death action filed by firefighter's wife against municipal employer).

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

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