N.J. High Court: Public Workers Can Sue Negligent Property Owners

March 15, 2007

The New Jersey Supreme Court this week ruled that when police and firefighters get hurt handling an emergency, they can sue and win compensation if negligence contributed to the injury.

The unanimous decision by New Jersey’s highest court found that a 1993 state law effectively abolished the so-called “firefighters’ rule,” which barred emergency personnel from winning damages from an irresponsible property owner.

Most states still have versions of the rule, according to the property owner’s lawyer, who found the decision frustrating.

The person who attacked the officer, he maintained, was the person most responsible.

“Is it fair for property owners or other victims of crime to have to answer in civil court for injuries our first responders may suffer and sustain in doing their duties?” asked the lawyer, Brian W. McAlindin.

Since this case deals only with New Jersey laws, it cannot be appealed to a federal court, McAlindin said.

The ruling came in the case of a police officer in Morris County, Harry Ruiz, who was hurt while attempting to break up a fight that spilled outside a Dover tavern in 2001.

Ruiz sued the bar, claiming it failed to provide sufficient security, as required by town ordinance. He also sued the property owner.

A trial judge dismissed his lawsuit, but a state appellate panel ordered it reinstated, so the bar appealed, bringing the case to the Supreme Court.

At issue was what effect the 1993 law had on the so-called firefighters’ rule, which was adopted in New Jersey in a 1960 court case.

The high court, noting that ordinary citizens as well as other public employees have the right to sue negligent parties, decided that the 1993 law gave emergency responders the right to collect if their injury was the direct or indirect result of neglect or a deliberate omission.

Ruiz lawyer David H. Ironson said the officer was attacked by an unknown person outside Silvana’s Bar and Restaurant on Oct. 7, 2001.

“They were televising a soccer match that was being shown to approximately 200 people and they were serving alcohol,” when a fight erupted, Ironson said.

“There was nobody there to break up that fight, or certainly an insufficient number of people to break up that fight,” Ironson said.

Ruiz, now 37, required neck surgery that left some bones fused, and can no longer work as an officer, Ironson said.

The ruling would not create an unfair right for emergency personnel because they must show that negligence contributed to the injury, he said: “You still have to prove your case.”

The property owner’s lawyer, McAlindin, was not so certain of the effect.

Under the ruling, McAlindin suggested, a firefighter could sue a homeowner whose overloaded outlet led to a fire that injured the firefighter.

McAlindin represented Richard Rossi Real Estate Corp., which leased the bar.

He said that although New Jersey law does not allow civil juries to assess a portion of the responsibility to the assailant, he hoped they find the property owner was not responsible even if the bar operator had insufficient security.

A message seeking comment from the bar’s lawyer, Gordon S. Graber, was not immediately returned Tuesday.


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