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Ruiz v. Mero

March 13, 2007

HARRY RUIZ AND SHARON RUIZ, HIS WIFE, PLAINTIFFS-RESPONDENTS,
v.
ANGEL MERO IMPROPERLY PLEADED AS ANGELO MERO, SILVANA'S BAR & RESTAURANT, RICHARD ROSSI AND RICHARD ROSSI REAL ESTATE CORPORATION, DEFENDANTS-APPELLANTS, AND JOHN DOES 1 THROUGH 10 FICTITIOUS NAMES FOR THE PERSONS, PARTNERSHIPS AND/OR CORPORATIONS INTENDED, DEFENDANTS.



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division, whose opinion is reported at 385 N.J. Super. 382 (2006).

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

(This syllabus is not part of the opinion of the Court. It has been prepared by the Office of the Clerk for the convenience of the reader. It has been neither reviewed nor approved by the Supreme Court. Please note that, in the interests of brevity, portions of any opinion may not have been summarized).

In this appeal, the Court must determine the continued vitality of the firefighters' rule, a common-law doctrine that bars a first responder from recovering damages from a property owner for injuries sustained while confronting an emergency on the owner's premises.

Plaintiff Harry Ruiz brought suit against defendants Angel Mero, Silvana's Bar and Restaurant, Richard Rossi, and Richard Rossi Real Estate Corporation seeking damages as a result of injuries he sustained on defendants' premises. Ruiz was a police officer for the City of Dover. He was called to the scene of an altercation at defendants' bar. When Ruiz arrived, he found the patrons had become agitated while consuming alcohol and watching a soccer match. One or more persons attacked Ruiz, resulting in head and neck injuries. In his complaint, Ruiz asserted that defendants were negligent in failing to provide adequate security at the bar in contravention of a municipal ordinance. Defendants moved to dismiss the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted on the theory that the suit was barred by the firefighters' rule. Plaintiff countered that the Legislature abrogated the firefighters' rule when it enacted N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-21 in 1993. The trial judge adopted defendants' theory and granted dismissal.

Plaintiff appealed. The Appellate Division reversed and remanded. Ruiz v. Mero, 385 N.J. Super. 382 (App. Div. 2006). This Court granted defendants' petition for certification limited to the issue of whether the firefighters' rule has been abrogated by N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-21.

HELD: N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-21 abolished the firefighters' rule. First responders may recover damages from a property owner for any injury sustained when answering an emergency.

1. The common law rescue doctrine provides a source of recovery to one who is injured while undertaking the rescue of another who has negligently placed himself at peril. The firefighters' rule developed as an exception to the rescue doctrine and prevents a firefighter from recovering in tort from a landowner or occupier who has been negligent in starting or failing to curtail a fire. It is an aspect of premises liability and was originally grounded in the distinction between an invitee and a licensee. Ultimately, the prevalent explanation for the rule was one of public policy: that it was unjust and unfair to compensate firefighters and police for injuries sustained when facing dangers they had been hired to confront. During the twentieth century, the firefighters' rule was adopted in a majority of jurisdictions. (pp. 4-6)

2. In 1960, New Jersey adopted the firefighters' rule in Krauth v. Geller, 31 N.J. 270 (1960), which held that the owner of a house who called for fire aid was not liable to a firefighter who was injured when he fell at the owner's premises. Krauth contained an exception that permitted suits by first responders for injuries from hazardous conditions that were not inevitably or unavoidably involved in emergency response. (pp. 6-8)

3. In 1991, the Court revisited the firefighters' rule in Rosa v. Dunkin Donuts, 122 N.J. 66 (1991). The effect of Rosa was to sweep away the Krauth exception. Justice Handler dissented, reiterating his earlier call for the complete abolition of the firefighters' rule. (pp. 8-10)

4. The firefighters' rule has come under criticism, and some states have completely abandoned or severely limited its scope. The gravamen of the criticism is that the firefighters' rule does not comport with notions of redress and equal treatment underlying modern tort law. Also, questions have been raised regarding the assumption of risk rationale that was used to justify the doctrine. (pp. 10-12)

5. In 1993, the Legislature enacted N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-21. Plaintiff contends that the Legislature meant N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-21 to abrogate completely the firefighters' rule. Defendants claim that the Legislature intended to return to the rule as it had existed prior to Rosa. (pp. 12-13)

6. The meaning of N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-21 seems clear - - to provide a broad right of action to a first responder who is injured on the premises to which he has been called. There is nothing in the words used to suggest that the Legislature intended to immunize only those hazards inevitably involved in firefighting or police work and not those outside that sphere. The language in the Senate committee statement supports the view that the Legislature was aware of Rosa when it passed the statute. In light of the unfettered statutory language authorizing a cause of action, it seems much more likely that the Legislature intended to adopt Justice Handler's view than to re-establish pre-Rosa law. (pp. 13-17)

7. In Kelly v. Ely, 336 N.J. Super. 354, 361 (App. Div.), certif. denied The opinion of the court was delivered by: Justice Long

Argued January 29, 2007

The judgment of the Appellate Division is AFFIRMED and REMANDED for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

CHIEF JUSTICE ZAZZALI and JUSTICES LaVECCHIA, ALBIN, WALLACE, RIVERA-SOTO and HOENS join in JUSTICE LONG's opinion.

At issue in this appeal is the continued vitality of the firefighters' rule, a common-law doctrine that bars a first responder from recovering damages from a property owner for injuries sustained while confronting an emergency on the owner's premises. In this case, a police officer sued a commercial landowner for injuries he suffered when quelling a disturbance at the owner's bar. The trial judge dismissed the complaint as barred by the firefighters' rule. The Appellate Division reversed and reinstated the complaint, on the ground that the firefighters' rule has been abrogated by N.J.S.A. 2A:62A-21.*fn1 We granted certification and now affirm.

I.

Plaintiff Harry Ruiz brought suit against defendants Angel Mero, Silvana's Bar and Restaurant, Richard Rossi, and Richard Rossi Real Estate Corporation (collectively "defendants") seeking damages as a result of injuries he sustained on defendants' premises.*fn2 At the time, Ruiz was a uniformed police officer for the City of Dover. While on duty, he was called to the scene of an altercation occurring at defendants' bar. Ruiz arrived to find that patrons had become agitated while consuming alcohol and watching a televised soccer ...


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