Supreme Court tackles negligence issue involving police

Posted: Friday, January 11, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaska Supreme Court followed the lead of other states in a ruling Friday that said injured police officers and firefighters can't sue people whose negligence caused them to be called out in the first place.

Dealing with other people's negligence is part of the job for public safety workers, the court said, and they receive ''compensation and benefits for the risks inherent in such responses.''

The issue arose when Dillingham Police Chief Brent Moody sued a local company whose stolen fuel truck had rammed into a vehicle he was in, causing permanent injuries.

The truck was stolen by Joseph Coolidge, who was drunk, after an employee of Delta Western Inc. left a loaded fuel truck in a driveway with the door unlocked and the keys in the ignition.

Moody responded to a call that the truck was being driven recklessly around town. The driver of the van in which he was riding tried to stop the truck after moving in front of it, but Coolidge rammed the van, throwing Moody into the dashboard and windshield.

Moody sued Delta Western, but Superior Court Judge Elaine M. Andrews granted a motion from the company for summary judgment, relying on the so- called ''Firefighter's Rule'' used in other states.

Since the issue had not been raised in Alaska before, it was up to the state Supreme Court to decide whether to apply the doctrine here.

In effect, the court said, officers and firefighters are employed by government as insurance for negligence of its citizens, and allowing police and firefighters to collect damages as well ''asks individuals to pay again for services the community has collectively purchased.''

Besides, negligence is a common factor in emergencies that require the intervention of public safety officers, the court said.

''Allowing recovery would cause a proliferation of litigation aimed at shifting to individuals or their insurers costs that have already been widely shared,'' the opinion states. It notes, however, the doctrine does not apply to negligence that occurs after the officer or firefighter arrives at the site of the emergency.

Nearly all the courts across the nation that have considered the issue have adopted the ''Firefighter's Rule,'' said the unanimous opinion written by Justice Warren W. Matthews. Justice Walter L. Carpeneti did not participate in the case.

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