The terms "liability" and "immunity" are often thrown around during discussions by fire company leadership and members. Unfortunately, many times there are wide misunderstandings as to the actual meanings and the implications of the meanings within the fire service. One important area that emergency service personnel should understand is where personnel, and the company as a whole, may be immune from liability and where there are exceptions to that immunity (meaning the fire company and/or its personnel could be subject to civil liability which could include money damages).
A Pennsylvania fire company, whether volunteer, combination or career, will generally be classified as a "local agency" under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act ("PSTCA"). This law provides immunity from liability for "any injury to a person or property caused by any act of the local agency or an employee thereof or any other person." However, this immunity is subject to some very significant exceptions. An injured party may be able to successfully sue and recover damages, even from a fire company, if the injury occurred within one of the specific exceptions.
The PSTCA has eight exceptions. Of those eight, there are two that would provide the most likely possibility for a fire company to be subject to liability:
1. The Vehicle Exception: Under the PTSCA, a fire company would not have immunity in the "operation of any motor vehicle in the possession or control of the local agency . . . ." This also includes a vehicle operated in the water (such as a rescue boat). Search the internet on any given day and you will almost certainly find an article about a fire truck or ambulance involved in an MVA. This is a huge hole in the immunity law and should not be underestimated by responders. All drivers should clearly understand that they basically have no protection of immunity when operating fire or EMS vehicles.
2. The Real Property Exception: A fire company will not get immunity from liability for issues related the "care, custody or control of real property . . . ." What does this mean? Well a 1997 case before the PA Supreme Court, Grieff v. Reisinger, explored the issue where the plaintiff, a woman from a neighboring business, decided to help the fire company prepare for an upcoming event. During the preparation, she was severely burned when the fire chief poured paint thinner on the kitchen floor which caught on fire after it ran under the running refrigerator. The court permitted the claim to move to trial on the negligence action against both the chief and company, finding that the alleged negligent care of the property by the chief and company caused Reisinger's injury and this "falls squarely within the real property exception."
A fire company, and especially its leadership, should understand that where a visitor is injured while on the fire company property and this was potentially due to the negligent care, custody or control of the property, there is potential liability. Think of all the times the public enters the station and the dangers that often exist within the confines of the station. Do you leave your bay doors open in the summer? Do you host fundraising events in the engine bay? Just a few things to think about.
While this is only a broad look at the issue of immunity, it is something for company's to consider in terms of the status of their driver training programs, policies and the status of their facilities. A very important note on immunity - while immunity may ultimately be the case, it does not stop an overly aggressive injured party from suing you and forcing you to defend yourself in court.