Firefighters' Rule

August 1, 2009

Firefighter & Police Officer have status of Licensee

An important category of entrants which deserves separate treatment is that of police officers, firefighters, and other public safety employees.[1] Since such persons enter the premises as a matter of right in the performance of their official duties, their entry is privileged, without regard to the consent of the owner or occupant. Thus, courts have had little difficulty in concluding that such entrants are not trespassers. On the other hand, their classification as either licensees or invitees has presented greater difficulty, resulting in considerable confusion among the various jurisdictions.[2] Some courts have persisted in classifying police officers and firefighters as licensees and not invitees.

Connecticut courts have done so, as our Supreme Court recently articulated: The common-law "Firefighter's Rule" provides, in general terms, that a firefighter or police officer who enters private property in the exercise of his duties occupies the status of a licensee and, therefore, is owed a duty of care by the property owner that is less than that owed to an ordinary invitee. Thus, under the Firefighter's Rule, the landowner generally owes the firefighter or police officer injured on his property only the duty not to injure him willfully or wantonly.[3]

The Firefighter's Rule provides that a firefighter, police officer, or other rescue personnel has the status of a licensee while upon land and performing a rescue. The rescuer therefore may not bring an action against the person in possession and control of the land for the breach of a duty owed to an invitee.[4] The Firefighters' Rule therefore operates as a qualified immunity for the persons in possession and control of land.[5]

The Firefighter's Rule has well developed roots in the common law. Although the rule had its origins in a social system in which the landowner was sovereign within his own boundaries and owed a licensee only the duty not to injure him willfully or wantonly;[6] the jurisdictions that have applied the rule in recent years have offered more cogent reasons to justify its continued viability. The most compelling argument for the continuing validity of the rule is the recognition that firefighters and police officers often enter property at unforeseeable times and may enter unusual parts of the premises under emergency circumstances.[7] Such public officers enter the land regardless of the owner's consent; indeed, if the conditions for the exercise of their public duty exist, the owner would not be privileged to exclude them. Recognizing that only invitees may rely on an implied representation of safety, courts have considered it unreasonable to require landowners to undertake the same standard of care for public officers whose presence the landowners can neither predict nor interdict.

The Connecticut Supreme Court first addressed the status of a public officer who is injured on private property while lawfully present in the exercise of his duties in Roberts v. Rosenblatt.[8] The Court held that the plaintiff, a firefighter who had been injured in a fall on an icy sidewalk while present on the premises in the performance of a public duty under a permission created by law, occupied a status akin to that of a licensee, to whom the owners of such premises owed no greater duty than that due a licensee.[9]

Until 1991, Connecticut only applied the Firefighter's Rule to firefighters.[10] 5 Then, in Furstein v. Hill,[11] the court explicitly widened the scope of the rule to include police officers. In Furstein,[12] the Connecticut Supreme Court analyzed the Firefighter's rule, which gives a firefighter the status of a licensee in a personal injury action against a landowner for harm sustained during the course of duty.[13] In Furstein, the plaintiff was a police officer who was responding to a call about a suspected burglar at the defendant's residence when a board in the defendant's wooden deck suddenly collapsed. Reversing a judgment for the plaintiff, the court applied the traditional "fireman's" rule and held that the plaintiff was a licensee.[14]

Connecticut courts have followed the lead of Furstein. In Morin v. Bell Court Condominium Ass'n,[15] the court treated as licensees the police officers who were on private property in the exercise of their duties, explaining that such public officers enter the land regardless of the owner's consent.

[1] See generally, Robert H. Heidt, When Plaintiffs Are Premium Planners for Their Injuries: A Fresh Look at the Fireman's Rule, 82 Ind. L.J. 745 (2007).

[2] 1 N. Landau & E. Martin, Premises Liability Law and Practice (2006) §1.05[3][c], p. 1-94.

[3] Levandoski v. Cone, 267 Conn. 651, 653-54 (2004).

[4] Morin v. Bell Court Condominium Ass'n, 223 Conn. 323, 328 (1992)

[5] Roberts v. Rosenblatt, 146 Conn. 110, 113 (1959) (status not dependent upon who sounded alarm).

[6] Dini v. Naiditch, 20 Ill. 2d 406, 413, 170 N.E.2d 881 (1960).

[7] 2 Restatement (Second), Torts (1965) § 345(1), comment (c), p. 228

[8] 146 Conn. 110 (1959).

[9] Roberts v. Rosenblatt, 146 Conn. 110, 113 (1959). Roberts adopted the principle expressed in the Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 345(1), that the liability of a possessor of land to one who enters the land only in the exercise of a privilege, for either a public or a private purpose, and irrespective of the possessor's consent, is the same as the liability to a licensee. 2 Restatement (Second), Torts (1965) § 345(1), pp. 226-27. The conclusion reached by the Court in Roberts is a form of the common law doctrine known as the "Firefighter's Rule."

[10] But see Kaminski v. Fairfield, 216 Conn. 29, 38-39, (1990) (implicitly extending rule to police officers).

[11] 218 Conn. 610, 615-16 (1991 ).

[12] 218 Conn. 610, 615-16 (1991).

[13] The firefighter rule is directly applicable only in cases involving an issue of premises liability. See Levandoski v. Cone, 267 Conn. 651, 661 (2004) (declining to extend firefighter rule beyond scope of premises liability).

[14] Furstein also held that Conn. Gen. Stat. § 52-557did not abrogate the common law regarding the status of firefighters and police officers, and that the status of such licensees was unaffected by the manner in which they came upon the premises.

[15] 223 Conn. 323, 328 (1992).