Court Recognizes Immunity of Fire Departments Operating Vehicles at the Scene of a Fire

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In a decision published April 20, 2011, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, confirmed that fire departments are immune from liability where a firefighter causes death or injury through the negligent operation of a motor vehicle at the scene of a fire while attempting to rescue persons and to extinguish the fire. This decision, which arose from the massive wildfires that swept through San Diego County in October and November of 2007, is beneficial for public entities that have fire departments because it recognizes that imposing liability in such situations might deter firefighters from making necessary decisions quickly under extremely stressful and dangerous circumstances.

In this case, Plaintiffs brought suit against Cal-Fire when they were injured during an attempt by state firefighters to assist in preventing the spread of fire to their property, and subsequent attempt to rescue them from their property. Their allegations focused on California Vehicle Code Section 17001, which deems a public entity liable for injuries caused by its employee's negligent operation of a motor vehicle. In response, Cal-Fire asserted that it was immune from liability under California Government Code Section 850.4, which provides immunity for any injury caused in fighting fires. Although the Court of Appeal recognized that the immunity applied under the facts presented in the case, it also recognized that liability could result from a firefighter's tortious act or omission in the operation of a motor vehicle while proceeding from another location to a fire in response to an emergency call.

You can read the Court's entire opinion in this case, Varshock v. Cal-Fire (D57709), here.

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