The Wisconsin Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled against a volunteer firefighter who argued he was immune from liability after driving through a red light and colliding with another vehicle when responding to an emergency call.
The unanimous ruling came in a case involving Parnell Burditt, a volunteer with the Okauchee Fire Department, about 30 miles west of Milwaukee.
The court ruled that Burditt was acting within the scope of his employment as a volunteer fire fighter at the time of the 2008 accident. However, because he did not have a siren on his truck before proceeding through the red light, he is not entitled to immunity from lawsuits afforded other public safety officers in similar situations.
The Supreme Court overturned an appeals court ruling upholding a circuit court summary judgment that found Burditt was immune from liability. The Supreme Court sent the case back to Waukesha County Circuit Court.
Because the Supreme Court determined that Burditt was acting within the scope of his employment, under state law the most in damages that can be sought from his insurance company is $25,000 per plaintiff.
Burditt’s attorney praised the decision, saying it was important for the court to rule Burditt was acting within the scope of his employment. Had it ruled that he wasn’t, there would have been no caps on damages that could be sought, Burditt’s attorney Lance Grady said.
“I think the Supreme Court got it right, this was the correct decision,” Grady said.
Ben Brantmeier, attorney for the fire department, also said he was pleased the court determined Burditt was acting within the scope of his employment when he responded to the emergency call.
The fire department argued that because he was responding in the scope of his employment while operating his personal truck, Burditt’s automobile insurance should be primary and the fire department’s insurance should be secondary.
Because his personal insurance would cover up to the $25,000 limit per plaintiff, the fire department’s insurance would not come into play, Brantmeier said.
The two people injured in the crash, Marilyn Brown and Delores Schwartz, have incurred more than $100,000 in medical bills as a result of the crash, their attorney Keith Stachowiak said. He called the ruling a “fair decision” and one that he hopes results in immunity for government workers involved in accidents being more of the exception rather than the rule.
This case will be used by volunteer firefighters across the state to educate them on the importance of stopping at red lights, even when responding to emergencies, Brantmeier said.
“The department did not want their volunteers to be able to blow a red light, for lack of a better word,” he said. “The fire department respects the rules of the road, as all fire departments do.”
Burditt himself said after the accident that proceeding through the intersection against the red light was a “poor decision,” according to court documents.
Burditt only received a pager alert that there was an emergency. He did not know at the time what the emergency was. It turned out to be a flooded basement.
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