On January 24, 1976 at around eight o’clock in the evening, an abandoned vehicle that was parked on the side of the roadway caught fire. The New York Fire Department responded to the scene, but the fire truck driver parked the truck in front of the vehicle that was on fire. Four other fire fighters began to battle the blaze. The fire captain on scene was holding a lantern and waving it to direct traffic. There were no police officers on the scene. The Nassau captain on scene noticed that a car was coming down the road and picking up speed. He attempted to get the driver’s attention so that he would not hit the four fire fighters who were working on the burning car. The vehicle did not slow up and proceeded to hit all of the firefighter killing one and seriously injuring the others. The injured firefighters filed a lawsuit alleging among other things that the driver was negligent, but that the City was also at fault for the accident because of the following: they failed to remove the abandoned car which caught fire based on the municipality’s responsibility to maintain its roadways in reasonable and safe condition for reasonable and foreseeable use.
The City failed to set up fire lines, the City was responsible for the actions of the fire truck driver when he placed the fire truck in front of the vehicle rather than using it to properly protect the safety of him and the other firefighters. The Suffolk Court left it to the jury to decide if the decisions of the Captain and the fire truck driver were questions of professional judgment or not. If it is determined that the decisions were those of professional judgment, then the City cannot be held liable. The jury was also instructed that under General Municipal Law § 205-a that a firefighter has an “independent statutory cause of action to recover damages for injuries or wrongful death caused ‘directly or indirectly as a result of any neglect. . .in failing to comply with the requirements of any of the statutes, ordinances, rules, orders and requirements of the federal, state, county, village, town, or city governments or of any and all their departments, divisions, and bureaus.’” This law applies to this situation because it is clear that the city failed to comply with several vehicular and traffic laws in failing to remove the abandoned vehicle in a timely manner.
The jury found unanimously that the city was negligent in failing to remove “the abandoned vehicle, failing to establish fire lines, and failing to park the fire truck properly, and that each of these acts of negligence was a proximate cause of the accident. It also determined that the (fire truck driver and the captain) as well as (the vehicle driver) were guilty of negligence which was a proximate cause of the truck accident.’” They also decided that the city was liable on the statutory cause of action.
The Supreme Court found that the causes of action against the city “should have been dismissed as a matter of law, prior to their submission to the jury.” In support of this decision, they cite that there was no evidence that under common law negligence that the abandoned vehicle was a danger to pedestrians or to vehicular traffic. The car had not been left in the middle of the street or on the sidewalk, but was safely off to one side of the roadway. It was clear that the city had notice of the abandoned vehicle and failed to remove it, but it “is well established that ‘public entities remain immune from negligence claims arising out of the performance of their governmental functions . . . unless the injured person establishes a special relationship with the entity, which would create a specific duty to protect that individual, and the individual relied on the performance of that duty.’” (Miller v. State of New York, 62 N.Y.2d 506, 510, 478 N.Y.S.2d 829, 467 N.E.2d 493; O'Connor v. City of New York, 58 N.Y.2d 184, 460 N.Y.S.2d 485, 447 N.E.2d 33; Schrempf v. State of New York, 66 N.Y.2d 289, 496 N.Y.S.2d 973, 487 N.E.2d 883). Because the removal of the abandoned car was a government function, there was no special relationship with the city and the city cannot be held liable in a common-law negligence suit for not removing the car. This same argument is true for the actions of the fire truck driver and the captain.
The fire truck driver and the captain both testified that the reason for parking the fire truck in front of the burning car was that it made it easier to get the hoses off of the back of the truck onto the car fire. If they had parked on the side, or behind the car, the hoses would have had to be pulled around the fire truck. This was an “error of judgment on the part of the Fire Department officers in their conduct of the fire-fighting activities.” Because of this law, the city cannot be held liable for these actions under a common law negligence suit.
Additionally, as far as the regulations of the fire department § 11.5.21 (a) which provides that "Initial fire lines shall be established by the officer in command at a point beyond the furthest apparatus, whether operating or parked". The court determined that the captain was not in violation of this regulation and therefore, this “theory of liability should not have been submitted to the jury.” 507 N.Y.S.2d 193,120 A.D.2d 24.
Thus, the Justices ordered that the sole liability for this accident rests on the driver of the car. The original case has been set aside as it respects everything concerning liability belonging to the City of New York or either the fire truck driver or the captain. A new trial is granted to the driver of the motor vehicle solely on the issue of damages.
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