Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo/courtesy photo

A bill that would provide immunity from civil liability to paid and volunteer first responders who have to break down doors or bust windows to save those in distress has passed the Assembly unanimously.

The measure, A-594, was approved 75-0 on Monday and now heads to the Senate.

Those who would be covered include public and private first responders, including emergency medical services personnel, law enforcement officers, and firefighters.

One of the bill’s primary sponsors, Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo, D-Atlantic, said it makes practical sense.

“It’s a commonsense approach for those who protect us, and in many cases save our lives, so they don’t have to worry about being liable for doing their job,” Mazzeo said on Tuesday. “Sometimes, you don’t think you need to have a law like this in place but stranger things have happened and we certainly feel it’s important to protect those who protect us.”

First responders are identified in the legislation as any members of a volunteer first-aid, rescue or emergency squad, or volunteer member of the National Ski Patrol System.

The measure also covers members of a volunteer fire company who provide emergency public first-aid and rescue services or services to control or extinguish fires, or both, as well as any mobile intensive care paramedic, licensed physician, hospital or its board of trustees, officers and members of the medical staff, including nurses and other hospital staff.

The bill seeks to amend a statute to provide that immunity “shall extend to any civil damages resulting from a forcible entry into a home, business, or other structure, at which an emergency is reported and where such entry is authorized by law. The first responder deems such entry as necessary to provide emergency medical care or to prevent imminent bodily harm and no occupant of the property responds to requests for entry within a reasonable period of time.”

According to Mazzeo, “It applies to any property damage or anything of that nature if [first responders] are breaking down the door and there is a reason for it, which in many cases, they are trying to save a person or protect property.”

But immunity does not extend to any first responder who causes damage “by his willful or wanton act of commission or omission” or to any first responder vehicle that causes damage during the rendering of such services.

The measure was first introduced on Jan. 9, 2018, and referred to the Assembly Judiciary Committee. The following month it was reported out of the committee on second reading, according to legislative records.

But it would lay dormant for more than a year as its primary sponsors departed the New Jersey Senate. The late Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, championed the bill before dying from a heart attack on Aug. 22, 2017, at age 68, while its other primary sponsor, Sen. Diane Allen, R-Burlington, retired at the close of the last legislative year.

A representative for the Senate Minority Office said on Tuesday that three new sponsors have signed on to the bill, known in the Senate as S-91, but it was not yet determined when the Senate will take it up for consideration.

The legislation has bipartisan support. While Democrats are primary sponsors on the Assembly side, the new Senate sponsors are all Republicans: Sens. Anthony Bucco, R-Morris, Steven V. Oroho, R-Sussex, and Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris.

After its unanimous passage in the Assembly on Monday, a primary Assembly sponsor, Joe Danielsen, D-Middlesex, said: “Ultimately, this bill is designed to ensure that no one in need of emergency assistance goes without care because of potential liability concerns in the event that they’re unable to either physically or verbally grant first responders entry into their property.”

But one attorney thinks A-594 may give too much cover.

Bruce Nagel of Nagel Rice in Roseland is representing a plaintiff suing both Short Hills Mall and the Millburn Volunteer First Aid Squad for alleged wrongful action in treating Dustin Friedland, a victim in a 2013 fatal carjacking inside the mall’s parking garage. Friedland, an attorney, was gunned down by four men who stole the couple’s Range Rover. The suit claims the volunteer first responders who arrived at the scene were ill equipped to access the mall’s parking deck as the plaintiff’s husband bled to death from a gunshot wound. According to Nagel, the EMTs had to walk to the parking deck using a stairwell, which he claims cost precious minutes leading up to the plaintiff’s death.

“While I am certainly in favor of First Responders having broad leeway to perform life-saving responsibilities, I disagree with an immunity which bars parties from suing even for acts of gross negligence,” said Nagel Friday as he prepared for a hearing in the case in Essex County Superior Court.

Contact Suzette Parmley at sparmley@alm.com.