I read in the Syracuse Post Standard today a story about a Syracuse firefighter who fell into a 12-foot shaft while searching a smoke-filled, burning building on James Street yesterday. The firefighter had opened a door he assumed would lead to a stairwell, took a step in, and — well he was wrong — it did not lead to stairs, but rather to a shaft for a “wheelchair lift”. He plunged to the floor 12 feet down and got injured.
Reading this story reminded me of the special rights New York firefighters and police officers have to bring New York personal injury claims against building owners who fail to follow building codes and other statutes and regulations. New York’s General Municipal Law (GML) section 205-a (for firefighters) and 205-e (for police officers) basically say that if the officer or firefighter is injured on the job because a statute or regulation (usually a building or fire code) was violated, he or she can bring a claim against the building owner.
What makes GML 205-a and 205-e so special is that the building or homeowner who violated the regulation or statute can’t use the defense of “comparative negligence” against firefighters or police officers in court. This means that even if the firefighter or police officer was partly at fault for the accident, he or she still gets 100% compensation for his or her injuries, medical expenses, lost wages, etc., from the code-violating building owner, with no reduction at all for his or her own comparative fault. All the officer or firefighter has to show is that the building owner was negligent in violating the building or fire code, and that this violation was at least “indirectly” a cause of the injuries he or she suffered.
So, in this Syracuse firefighter’s case, the building owner might be tempted to blame the firefighter for having “assumed” that the door led to a stairway without verifying this first. But if the owner violated a building code by failing to lock the door to the shaft (so that innocent visitors would not accidently walk into the shaft), then the firefighter has a solid GML 205-a case, even if he was partly to blame for the accident.
Why did our law makers pass these special laws to help firefighters and cops? Because they put their lives on the line every day to save our lives and our property from loss by fire or crime. The least we can do for them is pave the way for their full compensation from culpable building owners. These are good and just laws. And I am honored to have represented several of “New York’s Best” and their families in firefighter and police injury and death cases.