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Ruiz v. Rossi

May 15, 2006

HARRY RUIZ AND SHARON RUIZ, HIS WIFE, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
RICHARD ROSSI, AND RICHARD ROSSI REAL ESTATE CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS-RESPONDENTS, AND ANGEL MERO (IMPROPERLY PLEADED AS ANGELO MERO), AND SILVANA'S BAR & RESTAURANT, DEFENDANTS.



On appeal from the Superior Court of New Jersey, Law Division, Morris County, L-2576-03.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Coburn, P.J.A.D.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION

APPROVED FOR PUBLICATION

Submitted March 21, 2006

Before Judges Coburn, Collester and Lisa.

Defendants obtained summary judgment in this personal injury negligence action, and plaintiffs appealed.

For purposes of their summary motions and this appeal, defendants concede the following facts. Harry Ruiz is a Dover police officer. On October 7, 2001, defendants owned, leased or operated the Baker Ballroom in Dover, where they were hosting a televised soccer match and serving alcoholic beverages. Approximately 200 patrons attended the affair. A fight broke out among the patrons in the ballroom and was continued outside. Ruiz, who was on duty, arrived to restore peace. While performing that official duty, he was attacked and severely injured by some of the patrons. Defendants were responsible for the incident because they failed to provide adequate security.

Resolution of this case turns on the status of a common law doctrine adopted by the Supreme Court in 1960. The doctrine, usually referred to as the "fireman's rule," bars a firefighter from recovering damages against a property owner for injuries received while battling a fire caused by the property owner's negligence. Krauth v. Geller, 31 N.J. 270 (1960). Justice Jacobs dissented without filing an opinion. Subsequently, the Court applied the rule to police officers, with this explanation:

We perceive more than mere dollars-and-cents considerations underpinning the fundamental justice of the "fireman's rule." There is at work here a public policy component that strongly opposes the notion that an act of ordinary negligence should expose the actor to liability for injuries sustained in the course of a public servant's performance of necessary, albeit hazardous, public duties.

In the absence of a legislative expression of contrary policy, a citizen should not have to run the risk of a civil judgment against him for negligent acts that occasion the presence of a firefighter at the scene of a carelessly-set fire or of a police officer at a disturbance or unlawful incident resulting from negligent conduct. [Berko v. Freda, 93 N.J. 81, 88-89 (1983) (emphasis added).]

In Rosa v. Dunkin' Donuts, 122 N.J. 66 (1991), the Court extended the scope of the rule, holding that a police officer who was injured when he slipped on a negligently maintained floor while carrying an injured person from the scene was precluded from suing the property owner. Justice Handler dissented from this extension and in the course of his dissent, sharply criticized the fireman's rule itself, ending with this observation: "I expect eventually to join the Court when, and if, the doctrine becomes barren or moribund." Id. at 86.

Two years later the Legislature addressed the subject in N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-21:

In addition to any other right of action or recovery otherwise available under law, whenever any law enforcement officer, firefighter, or member of a duly incorporated first aid, emergency, ambulance or rescue squad association suffers any injury, disease or death while in the lawful discharge of his official duties and that injury, disease or death is directly or indirectly the result of the neglect, willful omission, or willful or culpable conduct of any person or entity, other than that law enforcement officer, firefighter or first aid, emergency, ambulance or rescue squad member's employer or co-employee, the law enforcement officer, firefighter, or first aid, emergency, ambulance or rescue squad member suffering that injury or disease, or, in the case of death, a representative of that law enforcement officer, firefighter or first aid, emergency, ambulance or rescue squad member's estate, may seek recovery and damages from the person or entity whose neglect, willful omission, or willful or culpable conduct resulted in that injury, disease or death. [Emphasis added.]

This statute was proposed in Assembly, No. 1342. The Statement in the proposed bill summarized the language ...


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