Judge Gary Andrews (John Disney/Daily Report)
The Georgia Court of Appeals has ruled a sheriff’s deputy injured when his car slid on the same wet grass clippings that caused the accident he was responding to cannot sue the business that left the clippings on the road.
The opinion said the deputy’s claims are barred by the “Fireman’s Rule,” which prohibits a public safety officer or first responder from recovering for injuries against a party whose actions led to the call for assistance in the first place.
The ruling overturns a Baker County trial judge, who refused to dismiss the case on summary judgment.
The Oct. 4 ruling was penned by Court of Appeals Judge Gary Andrews. Judges John Ellington and Brian Rickman concurred in judgment only, although neither offered an explanation for their position.
As detailed in the ruling, a Watson Used Cars employee in Colquitt mowed the grass along Ga. 253 and blew the clippings onto the highway in July 2012. Later that day, Robert Lynch was driving home from work when it started raining. Lynch lost control on the wet clippings, slid off the road and rolled over, coming to rest upright in a field.
Lynch called 911, and two Baker County sheriff’s deputies in separate cars responded, traveling at speeds close to 100 miles per hour with their emergency lights and sirens activated. Deputy Robert Snider was in the lead car, followed by Deputy James Kirkland, who slowed to 65 or 70 mph and slipped off his seatbelt so he could exit quickly.
Snider braked when he saw Lynch’s car, and Kirkland hit his own brakes, sliding off the road and into a tree. Kirkland was seriously injured and has been on disability leave receiving workers’ compensation benefits ever since, according to the opinion.
Kirkland and his wife sued the used car dealership for negligence in Baker County Superior Court. Watson Used Cars moved for summary judgment, and Kirkland filed an amended complaint alleging willful misconduct and seeking punitive damages.
Judge J. Kevin Chason denied Watson’s summary judgment motion in January but granted a certificate of immediate review.
In denying the dealership’s motion, Chason ruled that the Fireman’s Rule did not apply because “it was not the grass but Lynch’s need for help” that brought Kirkland to the accident scene.
“This analysis, however, overlooks the evidence that both accidents were caused by the same grass clippings” and “the same negligence,” Andrews wrote.
Andrews noted Chason “concluded that Kirkland’s lack of knowledge about the clippings created a factual question ‘as to whether the accumulation of wet grass in the road was an unknown pitfall or mantrap.’”
While prior Court of Appeals case law allows a public safety officer to recover if there is evidence that a property owner intentionally created a mantrap or pitfall, wrote Andrews, there “is no evidence that Watson or its employees deliberately deposited grass clippings on the highway with the intent to cause injury.”
As to the officer’s claims of willful misconduct, there is “no merit in Kirkland’s claim that Watson acted willfully and wantonly by deliberately blowing grass clippings onto the roadway, thereby removing this case from the Fireman’s Rule.”
All of the case law cited in Andrews’ opinion rested on prior Georgia Court of Appeals precedent, and Moore said the Fireman’s Rule is an issue the state Supreme Court should address.
“We respectfully disagree with the court’s opinion,” said Moore. “Our argument to the Court of Appeals was that when a fireman gets a call, that’s a notice of the risk he’s facing. When a police officer responds to a road wreck, all he knows is that a car went off the road … he doesn’t know there’s wet grass on the road.”
“I’ve never seen a case where one judge signs an opinion and two concur in judgment only,” Moore noted. “It sort of puts an asterisk on the opinion. The Georgia Supreme Court has never addressed the Fireman’s Rule. Maybe it’s time they should do that.”
Canton said Georgia’s interpretation of the Fireman’s Rule is similar to that of many other jurisdictions, and that the law is straightforward in this case.
“I thought we had a great shot at summary judgment because the facts in this case appeared to be a textbook Fireman’s Rule case,” said Canton.
“I believe this is settled case law,” he said. “I don’t believe the Supreme Court will hear this case.”