Espinoza v. Schulenburg – 3/22/2006

March 22, 2006

Arizona Supreme Court holds that the “firefighter’s rule” does not bar an off-duty firefighter who volunteered at the scene of an accident from suing the person whose negligence caused the accident.

The Schulenburgs were involved in an accident on State Route 101. Espinoza, an off-duty Phoenix firefighter and emergency medical technician (“EMT”), was driving home from work when she saw the accident scene and stopped to assist. While Espinoza was reaching inside the Schulenburgs’ vehicle to turn on the emergency flashers, the vehicle was struck by another car, driven by Barnett, and Espinoza suffered serious injuries. Espinoza sued the Schulenburgs, Barnett, and DPS to recover for her injuries. The superior court granted summary judgment to the Schulenburgs citing the firefighter’s rule. The court of appeals reversed, holding that the firefighter’s rule should be narrowly construed so as not to bar claims of off-duty firefighters. However, the court of appeals remanded to the trial court for a determination of whether Espinoza had a duty as part of her job as a firefighter to stop and help. The Schulenburgs appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court. The supreme court reversed the trial court’s ruling, vacated the court of appeals’ decision, and remanded for trial on the merits.

Under the rescue doctrine, an injured rescuer may recover damages in tort from the person whose negligence created the need for rescue. The firefighter’s rule is an exception to the rescue doctrine and bars the rescuer from recovering if she is injured while performing her duties as a professional firefighter. The Court first made clear that it was expressly adopting the rescue doctrine. The Court also adopted the firefighter’s rule but construed it narrowly to apply only when a firefighter’s presence at a rescue scene results from the firefighter’s on-duty obligations as a firefighter. Thus off-duty professionals who volunteer to help would fall outside the rule. Accordingly, Espinoza’s claim was not barred by the firefighter’s rule. In determining whether a firefighter is acting as a result of his on-duty obligations, the Court declined to adopt any test that might turn on a firefighter’s on-scene conduct. Instead, the Court emphasized that the focus should be on why the firefighter is on the scene. In a footnote, the Court distinguished cases involving off-duty police officers, noting that the special circumstances of such cases required further analysis.

Vice Chief Justice Berch authored the unanimous opinion.