Can Cops Sue Civilians for On-The-Job Injury?

Last week, a routine traffic stop in Maryland made national headlines when a suspected drunk driver plowed into a police officer and his vehicle, putting the officer in the hospital with critical injuries. The driver was not hurt at all and refused to take a breath test at the scene. Police took him into custody and said they expected to charge him, NBC News reported.

Noah Leotta, 24, was in critical condition in the days after the incident. He had volunteered to work on a special holiday alcohol-enforcement patrol, Police Captain Paul Stark said, "It is ironic that here he was trying to keep the community safe and the roads safe for everyone, yet he was struck by someone who is suspected of having alcohol or drugs in his system."

Assumption of Risk

Situations like this one raise the question of a police officer's assumption of risk. Can Leotta sue the suspected drunk driver -- Luis Gustavo Reluzco -- in civil court for negligence?

The answer is, it depends ... But probably not in this context. Every state has a version of the fireman's rule, which generally bars police officers and firefighters from suing people whose recklessness or negligence caused the hazard they are responding to. If the rules didn't exist, an emergency responder would have a basis for a lawsuit almost every time they did their job.

But just because some types of jobs assume a certain amount of risk does not mean that police or firefighters can never sue a civilian. In California, for example, the rule only bars actions for injuries caused by the misconduct that prompted the officer's presence at the scene. An injury that occurs independently of the misconduct to which the officer responds is outside the scope of the rule and the officer can sue civilly.

What Does That Mean?

Given what we know now about the traffic stop that put Leotta in the hospital, it seems unlikely he will be able to sue Reluzco in civil court for the injuries he sustained pulling him over last week. Applying the general principles of the fireman's rule, it seems designed to bar precisely this kind of claim.

Leotta was out on the street to respond to potentially intoxicated drivers and pull them over. He did that and ended up hurt by Reluzco. With no evidence that Reluzco intentionally hit the police officer and no other incidents arising from the original, it seems likely that Leotta will be barred from making a civil claim.

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