White v. State (8/26/2008)

September 2, 2008

Arizona Court of Appeals Division One Holds that Firefighter Rule Precludes Negligence Action by Survivors of Slain Police Officers Alleging that Defendant Mental Health Providers Failed to Properly Diagnose and Treat Man Who Later Shot and Killed Officers.

Family members of Doug Tatar, believing that he was a danger to himself and others, requested that he be evaluated by mental health care providers.  The providers evaluated Tatar but declined to place him into treatment.  A few months later, Tatar was involved in a confrontation with some neighbors.  Tatar shot one of the neighbors and retreated to his apartment.  Police officers who responded to the scene kicked in Tatar’s apartment door.  Tatar fatally shot two officers, then shot and killed himself.

Beneficiaries of the slain police officers sued the health care providers and others for alleged negligence in failing to treat Tatar.  The trial court granted Defendants’ motion for summary judgment under the “firefighter’s rule,” which bars tort actions by public safety employees for injuries sustained as a result of the negligence that creates the very need for their employment.  Plaintiffs appealed, arguing that the “independent negligence exception” to the firefighter’s rule should apply.

The Arizona Court of appeals affirmed.  The Court agreed, in accordance with other jurisdictions, that the firefighter’s rule covers actions for injuries to on-duty police officers.  The court next held that the independent negligence exception was factually inapplicable.  The pertinent inquiry for the exception is whether the negligently created risk which resulted in plaintiff’s injury was the reason for his being at the scene in his professional capacity.  The actor’s negligence is not independent if the actor’s conduct caused or contributed to the emergency that in turn caused the injury or death of the police officer.  Because Plaintiffs alleged in essence that the Defendants’ negligence both caused or contributed to the emergency response situation and caused Tatar to shoot the officers, the exception did not apply.

Judge Brown wrote the opinion for the panel; Judges Timmer and Norris concurred.