For the first time, the Utah Supreme Court has adopted a rule that restricts lawsuits by public-safety officers if they get hurt while helping someone in distress.
The court ruled Sept. 14 in a case involving a state trooper who was hit by a car and seriously injured while retrieving flares to mark a scene where another car crashed in December 2003.
Richard Fordham of the Utah Highway Patrol sued Ryan Oldroyd, the driver whose vehicle slid off an I-15 ramp in Salt Lake City, creating the need for assistance.
The state Supreme Court upheld lower court rulings and rejected the lawsuit, even if Oldroyd may have been negligent in how he drove on an icy road.
"Mr. Oldroyd owed Trooper Fordham no duty of care. ... Firefighters and police officers have a relationship with the public that calls on them to confront certain hazards as part of their professional responsibilities," the court said.
The court, 4-0, said it was recognizing a "professional-rescuer rule" for the first time.
"Members of the public, who owing to their negligence find themselves in need of aid, should summon assistance without fear of exposing their assets to compensate their rescuer in the event of injury," Justice Ronald Nehring wrote.
Associate Chief Justice Michael Wilkins agreed with the outcome but said a professional-rescuer rule was not necessary.
"We should apply ... a traditional negligence analysis to the facts of this case," he wrote in a separate opinion. "Oldroyd's simple act of negligence, in losing control of his car in icy conditions, by itself is not enough to sustain Fordham's claim for damages."
Fordham's legs were badly injured. He now works as an investigator with the highway patrol, Sgt. Jeff Nigbur said.
Fordham sued Oldroyd after getting money from the insurer of the driver who actually struck him and the Utah Workers Compensation Fund, his attorney, Peter Collins said.
"It's a bad ruling," Collins said of the Supreme Court opinion. "Like most questions in our civil-justice system, this should have been for a jury to decide."