Espinoza v. Schulenburg

In Espinoza v. Schulenburg, 212 Ariz. 215, 217,7, 129 P.3d 937, 939 (2006), an off-duty firefighter (Espinoza), who was also an emergency medical technician, was driving home from work and stopped to help at a car accident scene. Id. at 216,2, 129 P.3d at 938. The wrecked vehicle was on the side of the highway, partially obstructing traffic. Id. at3. As Espinoza reached into the vehicle to turn on the emergency flashers, the car was rear-ended by another car, causing her to suffer injuries. Id. She sued for damages, but the superior court determined the firefighter's rule barred her negligence claim. Id. at4. Recognizing that public policy considerations form the basis of the firefighter's rule, our supreme court held that the firefighter's rule "applies when a firefighter's presence at a rescue scene results from the firefighter's on-duty obligations as a firefighter." Espinoza, 212 Ariz. at 218,17, 129 P.3d at 940. The court expressly excluded off-duty volunteers from the application of the firefighter's rule, reasoning that doing so "serves the important societal goal of encouraging those most qualified to stop and render aid." Id. at 219,17, 129 P.3d at 941. The court reasoned that such volunteers "are under no obligation to act" and, in acting, go "beyond the scope of their employment." Id. at18. The court recognized that an off-duty firefighter is not paid to render aid, may not be equipped to handle the situation, and may lack identification, safety equipment, or back-up support. Id. For those reasons, the court explained that "they are . . . acting just like those whom the rescue doctrine is intended to protect." Id. Emphasizing that the "central question is whether the firefighter is on the scene as a result of his on-duty obligations as a firefighter," id. at 220,23, 129 P.3d at 942, the court concluded the firefighter's rule did not bar Espinoza's claim because she had no on-duty obligation as a firefighter to be at the rescue scene, id. at25. In Espinoza, our supreme court explained, however, that the assumption of risk doctrine does not provide an appropriate basis for application of the firefighter's rule. 212 Ariz. at 218,13-14, 129 P.3d at 940. The court reasoned that the assumption of risk doctrine "no longer serves as a complete bar to tort recovery under Arizona's comparative fault system . . . and therefore does not support the complete bar that the firefighter's rule represents." Id. at13. In Espinoza, the court formally adopted the rescue doctrine. Id. at 217,9, 129 P.3d at 939. By doing so, the court recognized that the doctrine expanded the scope of tort liability in Arizona "to encourage people to respond to those in distress." Id. In declining to apply the rescue doctrine to firefighters, however, the court emphasized that "the tort system is not the appropriate vehicle for compensating public safety employees for injuries sustained as a result of negligence that creates the very need for their employment." Id. at11