• Recent change in law opens you up to a lawsuit for injuries sustained when police come to your home
By Keith Johnson
If you want to get sued, just dial 9-1-1.
Carmina Figueroa found this out the hard way when the Houston-area resident phoned her local sheriff’s department last year to report that her son-in-law was acting crazy from ingesting drugs sold as “bath salts” for several days in a row.
One of the deputies that arrived at the scene was Brady Pullen, who claims that the unarmed suspect, Kemal Yazar, bit him and broke his nose. Though one witness says that Yazar never touched any of the officers, he was nevertheless shot and killed.
Now, Ms. Figueroa is facing a $200,000 civil action filed by Pullen because, according to the lawsuit, she failed to “adequately warn” the dispatcher that Yazar “posed a violent threat to others.”
Ms. Figueroa’s case is just the latest example of a disturbing trend that has been developing incrementally since the early 1980s. Prior to that, police officers were bound by the “Fireman’s or Firefighter’s Rule,” a common-law restriction that prohibits first responders from filing suit against citizens for injuries sustained during the normal course of their duties.
However, due in large part to the lobbying efforts of prominent civil-service trade unions, several American states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado, Oregon and New Jersey, have abolished the rule, while many others have rendered it obsolete through legal precedent.
“In 1996, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME, the official tax-feeders union) enacted a resolution denouncing the ‘Fireman’s Rule’ as a form of ‘unfair and indefensible treatment of public safety employees and law enforcement officers’ and supporting efforts to ‘reform or abolish the Fireman’s Rule wherever it exists,” wrote William “Will” Grigg on the popular website “Pro-Liberate.” “The AFSCME, through its affiliate, the National Law Enforcement Officers Rights Center, has quietly lobbied for modifications to the Fireman’s Rule while looking for a promising lawsuit that could abolish it outright.”
Fortunately, in spite of many recent cases similar to Figueroa’s, there is still not enough support in favor of widespread abolishment. One such lawsuit came in the wake of a 2007 incident, when a 34-year-old schizophrenic in Shingle Springs, Calif. gunned down his father before shooting it out with an El Dorado County Sheriff’s SWAT team.
Three of the deputies wounded in the exchange ended up filing a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the surviving mother and her dead husband’s estate, claiming that the parents should have had better control over their adult son’s access to firearms and were therefore partially liable for the deputies’ physical injuries and emotional trauma.
Though the plaintiffs planned to aggressively pursue their claim, they eventually dropped it after drawing the ire of the local community.
One lawsuit that’s still pending stems from a botched drug raid that occurred in 2012 in Greenland, N.H. While attempting to serve a no-knock search warrant on a suspected prescription pill dealer, members of a four-state Drug Task Force became embroiled in a gunfight that ultimately claimed the lives of the suspect, his girlfriend and the local chief of police. Later that year, four of the surviving officers filed suit against the suspect’s mother because she owned the home where the killings took place and therefore “indirectly supported and facilitated” her son’s criminal activity.
Because many of these civil actions do not stem from horrifically violent acts, they’ve received very little attention from the mainstream media. They are, however, no less absurd.
In 2011, for instance, Richfield, Ohio police officer Jeffrey Revlock stopped to investigate a car that slid off a snow-covered highway. After speaking with the driver and determining that he “negligently failed to control his vehicle,” Revlock returned to his patrol car to write up a citation. That’s when another vehicle skidded off the icy highway and struck the officer’s car from behind. Revlock ended up suing both drivers, reasoning that the former put him in harm’s way due to his negligent driving.
Perhaps evenmore ridiculous is the case of Timothy Hannigan. In 2006, the Charleston, W.V. resident called police to report that his pick-up truck had been stolen. While responding to the call, Charleston police officer Craig Dickinson’s patrol car was rammed by the stolen vehicle as the suspect was attempting to flee the scene. As a result, Dickinson brought suit against Hannigan, claiming that the injuries he sustained were a direct result of the victim’s failure to lock his vehicle and remove the key from the ignition.
None of these cases should serve as a reflection on the entire law enforcement community, but rather on the few opportunistic lawyers, public insurance providers and union bosses who have convinced their clients that they are entitled to even more tax-payer compensation than they already receive. Most police officers are fully aware of the risks inherent in their jobs and many of their leaders—particularly elected sheriffs—have publicly denounced these frivolous lawsuits.
One police chief in Casselberry, Fla. even went so far as to terminate veteran Sergeant Andrea Eichhorn after she filed suit against the family of a boy who nearly drowned in a backyard pool. According to the Orlando Sentinel, “Eichhorn was the third rescuer at the house. She slipped and fell in a puddle of water in the hallway, near where officers were performing CPR.”
To put this in context, Eichhorn merely suffered a temporarily debilitating broken knee-cap. The boy, on the other hand, suffered permanent brain damage and now lives in a home for profoundly handicapped children.
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