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March 11. 2012 11:20PM

Epping officials uneasy about firefighter's suit

EPPING — The town's deputy fire chief is urging residents not to stop calling for help for fear of being sued if a firefighter or other emergency worker is injured on the job.

The message came in response to concerns over a state Supreme Court ruling last month that found former volunteer Epping firefighter Jason Antosz could sue a homeowner because he slipped on ice and snow and was seriously injured during a call.

“If you call us we're going to come — don't worry about us suing you. We have a job to do,” Deputy Fire Chief Bruce Chapman told selectmen at a board meeting last week.

The case involving Antosz stemmed from a call he responded to at the Epping home of Doree Allain on Jan. 29, 2008, after a fire was reported in a water heater. Antosz slipped on packed ice and snow in the driveway and is now disabled.

Antosz, a Republican state representative, filed suit against Allain, claiming she was negligent for failing to properly treat the driveway, but a Rockingham County Superior Court judge dismissed the case, citing the Fireman's Rule, a law that prevents emergency personnel from bringing lawsuits when they're injured while responding to a call.

The state Supreme Court overturned the ruling last month, saying it can't stop an emergency responder from suing “for other negligent conduct.” The court ruled that the Fireman's Rule “permits a firefighter to pursue causes of action for injuries arising from allegedly negligent conduct that did not create the occasion of his visit, regardless of whether that conduct occurs during or prior to the firefighter's official engagement on the scene.”

Antosz received worker's compensation and a settlement, according to Allain's attorney.

Chapman said the fire department is “not happy with what's going on.”

“I was always under the impression, when you sign on the dotted line you know it's a dangerous job. Are you going to sue the military if you get your arm blown off? It's just not right,” he said.

Selectman Tom Gauthier also voiced concern about the ruling at last week's meeting.

“Now you have an issue where if safety personnel are at your house for a safety issue, for the ambulance or whatever, and they slip and fall that homeowner is going to be sued or has the possibility of being sued. That is just so wrong. It's going to make people not want to call the fire department or call the ambulance if you're going to have to go through something like that,” Gauthier said.

David Lang, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of New Hampshire, worries the case could have a chilling effect.

“The thing that we want to stress here is that in a time of an emergency, seconds, not minutes, count and we don't want people to have to hesitate in accessing emergency services,” Lang said. “As somebody representing a large group of firefighters, we would not want someone to hesitate to think about, ‘Did I shovel my driveway?'”

Others aren't as worried about lawsuits preventing people from calling when they need help.

“That would not be the first thing on my mind,” Plaistow Fire Chief John McArdle said. “I would hope people would not put themselves in jeopardy for fear of being sued.”

The Fireman's Rule pertains to other public safety personnel as well, including police officers.

Even when an injured emergency responder receives worker's compensation, it's only 60 percent of their base salary, Brentwood police Sgt. Denny Wood said.

“I don't know many Americans that can live on 60 percent of their base salaries, especially when it may be someone else's fault,” Wood said.

Like firefighters, Wood said police officers also know the risks when they take the job.

“When we signed onto this job we understood the inherent dangers which encompass the job we do. However, it is comforting to know that we now have other personal protections afforded to us and to our families for someone else's gross negligence,” Wood said.

At the same time, Wood said he wouldn't want people to delay an emergency call for fear of a lawsuit.

“I think I can speak for all emergency workers when I say we would never want any homeowner or business owner to not call the emergency services because they are concerned about civil liability. I don't think that was ever the intent of Mr. Antosz's lawsuit. I think it's about gross negligence,” he said.

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