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The Fireman's Rule Under Virginia Law

By Josh Silverman on January 15, 2014


A basic doctrine in Virginia personal injury law is that if you assume the risk of injury you cannot recover damages.  In a simple example, anyone who goes to ballpark assumes the risk of getting hit by a foul ball.  Likewise if someone negligently starts a house fire and a firefighter gets injured while putting out the fire, the firefighter probably can't make a personal injury claim against the homeowner.  As a matter of law, the firefighter assumes the risk of getting injured putting out fires. 

The same principle applies to police officers.  Let's say a police officer gets injured responding to a malfunctioning burglar alarm.  The police officer probably would not be able to sue the homeowner for negligence.  

Fortunately there are exceptions to these rules.  Under Virginia law no one assumes the risk of an intentional injury or an injury due to "willful and wanton conduct."  Willful and wanton conduct means a person is behaving so recklessly that he or she is consciously disregarding the safety of others.  So back to the baseball park, if a player were to get upset at a fan and target the fan with a baseball, the fan could sue the player for intentionally harming him even though he assumes a risk of injury going to the ballpark.

Applied to police officers and firefighters, the Fireman's Rule would not apply in a case against a defendant who intentionally injures the officer or acts with willful and wanton conduct.  This means that a firefighter could sue an arsonist and a police officer could sue a criminal that put him at risk due to his willful and wanton conduct.  An example would be leading an officer on a high speed police chase.

These exceptions to the Fireman's Rule are critically important.  Virginia police officers and firefighters put their lives on the line every day for our safety.  They should have every right to recover damages for serious injuries due to the reckless or criminal acts of others.

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