March 12, 1999
FIREFIGHTER'S RULE AND EMERGENCY MEDICAL TECHNICIANS
By: George Coppolo, Chief Attorney
You asked whether the firefighter's rule has been extended to emergency medical technicians or other ambulance personnel.
The firefighter's rule deals with the duty property owners or renters owe to public servants who are injured on the property while performing public duties. Connecticut courts have only applied the firefighter's rule to firefighters and police officers. We were unable to find any cases where our courts were asked to extend the rule to emergency medical technicians or other ambulance personnel. Thus it is not clear how our courts would rule on this issue. One Superior Court judge refused to extend the rule to a private security guard working at a nuclear power plant (Geherty v. Connecticut Yankee Atomic Power Co., CV95 054680s April 20, 1998). The court reasoned that, unlike police officers and firefighters, private security guards are scheduled to be on premises at specific times and at specific locations. Also, private security guards can only enter private property with the owner's consent whereas, police and firefighters can enter without the owner's permission.
The “firefighter's rule” is a common law rule that classifies firefighters and police officers as uninvited licensees rather than invitees while on someone's private property performing a public duty under permission created by law. It falls within the more general rule that a possessor of land owes each person who enters his land a certain duty of care based on the person's status. The legal significance is that a possessor of land has the duty to an invitee to inspect the premises for hidden defects and to repair or erect safeguards, if necessary, to make the premises reasonably safe. He has no duty to inspect or to repair or erect safeguards for licensees.
Connecticut adopted the firefighter's rule in 1959 (Roberts v. Rosenblatt, 146 Conn. 110). The Supreme Court subsequently extended it to police officers (Kaminski v. Fairfield, 216 Conn. 29; Furstein v. Hill, 218 Conn. 610).
The main reasons offered in support of the firefighter's rule are: (1) firefighters and police officers often enter property at unforeseeable times and may enter unusual parts of the premises under emergency circumstances; (2) they assume the risk of this type of injury since the very nature of those jobs involve the risk of injury; and (3) the public as a whole through such devices as workers' compensation, should bear the burden of foreseeable losses incurred when they are injured in the performance of their duties.
DUTY OWED TO A LICENSEE
In Connecticut, the following rules apply to a possessor of land with respect to uninvited licensees.
1. He may not intentionally harm the licensee or lay a trap for him.
2. The licensee is entitled to due care after his presence is actually or constructively known.
3. There is no liability owed to the licensee for the obvious condition of the premises but conditions that may be obvious in the daytime may become concealed at night.
4. The possessor of land has a duty to watch out for licensees or tolerated intruders if he is engaged in a dangerous activity.
5. The possessor of land must warn licensees and tolerated intruders of dangerous hidden hazards he actually knows about (Conn. Law of Torts, § 48).
An owner or occupier of land is subject to liability to a licensee for injuries sustained from a natural or artificial condition if he (1) knows of the condition, (2) realizes that it involves an unreasonable risk, (3) has reason to believe that the licensee will not discover the condition or realize the risk, and (4) permits the licensee to enter or remain upon the premises without exercising reasonable care to make the condition reasonably safe or to warn the licensee of the condition and the risk involved (Laube v. Stevenson, 137 Conn. 469 (1951)).
SOCIAL GUEST AS INVITEE
Under Connecticut common law a social guest was merely a licensee and not an invitee because no benefit conferred on the possessor of land could be found (Laube v. Stevenson, 137 Conn. 469 (1951)). This is no longer the case in Connecticut. CGS § 52-557a which was enacted in 1963 (PA 575) now provides: “The standard of care owed to a social invitee shall be the same as the standard of care owed to a business invitee.” Thus possessors of land now owe social guests the same duty of care they do to business invitees.
DUTY OWED TO INVITEES
Invitees are those persons coming upon the land for a business purpose redounding to the benefit of the land possessor or to the mutual benefit of the visitor and land possessor. The Supreme Court detailed the three types of invitees: (1) public invitee; (2) business invitee; and (3) social invitee, and distinguished invitees from licensees.
Invitees fall into certain general categories. A public invitee is a person who is invited to enter or remain on land as a member of the public for a purpose for which the land is held open to the public. A business invitee is a person who is invited to enter . . . or remain on land for a purpose directly or indirectly connected with business dealing with the possessor of land. General Statutes § 52-557a, which provides that “[t]he standard of care owed to a social invitee shall be the same as the standard of care owed to a business invitee,” in effect recognizes a third kind of invitee, namely, the social invitee. The distinction between one who is an invitee and one who is merely a licensee turns largely on whether the visitor has received an invitation, as opposed to permission, from the possessor of land, to enter the land or remain on the land. Although an invitation itself does not establish the status of an invitee, it is essential to it. Mere permission, as distinguished from invitation, is sufficient to make the visitor a licensee but it does not make him an invitee. Restatement (Second), 2 Torts § 332 Comment B (Corcoran v. Jacovino, 161 Conn. 462, (1971)).
The possessor of land owes to the invitee all of the duties which he owes to a licensee. Also, the possessor of land has the following additional obligations with respect to an invitee: (1) he has the duty to inspect the premises and erect safeguards, if necessary, to render the premises reasonably safe; and (2) he is liable for defects which would ordinarily be discoverable by a reasonable inspection, and he has the duty to give a proper warning to the invitee. But he is not liable to anyone for unknown latent defects, which could not be discovered by the exercise of reasonable care (Conn. Law of Torts, § 49).
The occupier of land has the duty to inspect his property and make it safe when dealing with invitees. It was accordingly held that the fact that the danger of a rotten board on a ramp leading from a roller coaster was not apparent on visual observation would not relieve the owner of his duty to an invitee that requires the occupier to make a reasonable inspection (Long v. Savin Rock Amusement Co., 141 Conn. 150).
Even if he is an invitee, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant had notice, actual or constructive, of the specific defective condition that caused the injury, and that the condition had existed for a sufficient length of time to have allowed the possessor, in the exercise of reasonable care, an opportunity to discover it and either fix it or warn of its presence (Monahan v. Montgomery, 153 Conn. 386). While the possessor of land owes the duty to invitees to exercise reasonable care to keep the premises reasonably safe for reasonably anticipated uses, he is not liable for hazards that could not have been discovered or anticipated (Conn. Law of Torts, § 49).
A property owner is not an insurer of the safety of those who use the common approach to his premises against the possibility of injury because of snow or ice. His duty is to use reasonable care to maintain the common approach in a reasonably safe condition under all the circumstances. Proof that some snow or ice was on the common approach does not necessarily prove a breach of duty (Dribble v. Village Improvement Co., 123 Conn. 20).
FIREFIGHTER'S RULE—LEADING CONNECTICUT CASES
Roberts v. Rosenblatt
In the first case of its kind in Connecticut, the Supreme Court held that a firefighter who came upon the defendant's property in response to a fire alarm entered the premises in the performance of a public duty under a permission created by law. Thus his status was that of a licensee and the defendant owed him no greater duty than that of a licensee (Roberts v. Rosenblatt, 146 Conn. 110 (1959)). The firefighter had sustained permanent and disabling disabilities about 3 a.m., when he slipped and fell on a patch of ice on a paved walk running from the street to the rear of a house owned by the defendant. With other firefighters, he had responded to a telephoned alarm of fire on the premises, which contained five rented, furnished apartments
Furstein v. Hill
The Supreme Court extended this rule to police officers in 1991 (Furstein v. Hill, 218 Conn. 610). A private alarm company notified the Hartford police department that a silent burglar alarm had been activated at a residence owned by the defendant. The police dispatched the plaintiff, police officer to investigate. He injured his knee when a board in the deck attached to the rear of the house collapsed as he crossed it to inspect the sliding glass doors that provided rear access to the house. As a result, he could not work for six months, and suffered a permanent partial disability of the knee. The plaintiff produced evidence that the wood was rotting and weather beaten. But, he produced no direct evidence that the defendant, who lived in Florida, and who did not testify at trial, had actual or constructive knowledge either of the rotted condition of the deck or that it had been built from untreated wood that would tend to rot more quickly than chemically preserved wood. Also the plaintiff produced no evidence that the defendant had ever been on the property, or that any person acting on her behalf had any knowledge of the deck's condition at the time of the accident.
The Supreme Court outlined the three strongest arguments to justify the continued viability of the firefighter's rule. According to the Court the most compelling argument is that firefighters and police officers often enter property at unforeseeable times and may enter unusual parts of the premises under emergency circumstances. They enter the land regardless of the owner's consent. If the conditions for the exercise of their public duty exist, the owner could not exclude them. There would be an obvious hardship to impose a duty on landowners to inspect and keep all parts of their premises in a condition perhaps uncalled for by the normal use to which the premises are devoted.
The second argument is that the work performed by police officers and firefighters is, by its very nature, hazardous. The very nature of police and fire work is to confront dangers often created by the public they are hired to serve. The public hires, trains, and compensates them to deal with such dangers. Thus, it would be unfair to make members of the public liable for injuries police officers and firefighters sustain while engaging in the very work they were hired to do.
The third argument is that allowing police officers and firefighters to recover from landowners for occupational injuries would impose a double burden on taxpayers who already pay them to deal with such hazards in the form of taxes which pays their salaries, workers' compensation, and special disability benefits.
Morin v. Bell Court Condominium
In Morin v. Bell Court Condominium Assn., Inc. (25 Conn. App. 112 (1991)) the Appellate Court upheld the applicability of this rule to a police officer who was responding to a radio dispatch warning of a fire at a condominium complex. The portion of the complex in question was a three-story section with two apartments on each floor that is served by front and rear common hallways and staircases. The officer entered the rear common entrance and, during the course of evacuating apartments on the three floors, fell while descending the common staircase. This fall was caused by a stairway defect.
The main issue was whether the defendant condominium association had knowledge of the plaintiff's presence. If they knew of this presence, they would have the duty to warn him of dangerous hidden hazards. Since there was no evidence of direct knowledge, the issue was whether there were circumstances from which such knowledge could be imputed. The plaintiff introduced testimony that the injured officer had been there in the past, as had other police officers, in response to tenants' complaints about various criminal and other matters. A two-judge majority of the court held that this type of evidence was insufficient to show imputed knowledge. They adopted a narrow test of whether, under the circumstances proven, the defendant could have and should have reasonably anticipated the plaintiff's presence on the premises because of a regular pattern of such appearances at the approximate time of day and place of the injury. Thus, imputed knowledge would be based on predictability and foreseeability like that of a postman (citing Haffey v. Lemieux, 154 Conn. 185 (1966)). In the absence of this type of evidence, the court held that knowledge of the officer's presence in the stairwell could not be imputed to the defendant.
Chief Judge Dupont wrote a vigorous dissent in this issue. She felt that the common areas of a condominium, such as common stairways, are more in the nature of property that is held open to the public. If an injury occurs on this type of property at a time when the public might reasonably be expected to be present, then a defendant could reasonably have anticipated the plaintiffs presence at the time and place in question, according to Dupont.