After suffering injuries when a water truck ran over her at a fire base camp, a plaintiff in a recent case before the California Court of Appeal brought a lawsuit against the Fire District and their employees. She alleged that her damages were caused by their negligence, a dangerous condition of public property, and their failure to warn. The lower court had held that the defendants were immune from liability, according to the firefighter’s rule, and on appeal, the court analyzed whether the defendants had waived their claim to immunity.
A fire broke out in the Plumas National Forest in September 2009, and a base camp was set up at Plumas County Fairgrounds. The plaintiff worked as a Forest Service firefighter and slept in an area that had not been properly roped off and marked “no vehicles allowed.” In the evening, a water truck servicing a nearby shower unit ran over the plaintiff, who was sleeping on the ground, and severely damaged her heart, lungs, and eyes.
After bringing a claim against the defendants, they moved for nonsuit, contending that they were immune from liability according to the Government Claims Act. Specifically, they stated that section 850.4 provided immunity for them, as a public agency, against claims for injuries resulting from the condition of fire protection or firefighting equipment. The plaintiff contended that statutory immunity was waived, but the trial court granted the defendants’ motion for nonsuit.
The court here stated that governmental immunity may be raised at any time. The plaintiff argued that section 850.4 immunity is an affirmative defense and that it can be waived. The court rejected this contention, stating that the immunity did not require an affirmative showing. Instead, it could be raised at any time and had not been waived.
Next, the court assessed whether the immunity applied to the case at hand. The plaintiff argued that the condition of the base camp that caused her injuries was unrelated to fighting fires. Therefore, the statutory immunity of section 850.4 had not been triggered.
The court stated that section 850.4, according to the Act, provides public entities with immunity for torts, except for injuries caused by dangerous conditions on property that created a foreseeable risk of the kind of injury suffered and that were caused by an employee’s negligence or wrongful act. But the court made clear that even when a dangerous condition has been demonstrated, a public entity may prevail if a specific statutory immunity applies. One such specific immunity is set forth for public agency decisions regarding fire protection and firefighting.
Turning to the policy and legislative history behind the construction of section 850.4, the court stated that firefighters were to be protected from liability imposed for injuries caused in fighting fires. In fact, under sections of the Vehicle Code, public entities and personnel can be liable for the tortious operation of their fire equipment, since this does not relate to actual firefighting. The court also noted that firefighters have an incentive to maintain their facilities and equipment to avoid the risk of potential injuries.
Finally, the court made clear that broadly interpreting section 850.4 to provide immunity, regardless of whether the nature of the condition affects an ability to fight fires, might sometimes yield unfair results. The court stated that the fact is that an “unbridled construction” is supported by the language of the statute. There is, according to the court, a public policy priority in absolving a defendant from resulting liability. Fire protection agencies must be given latitude to fulfill their mission.
The court affirmed the judgment in favor of the defendants.
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