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January 31, 1990


Appeal from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia; Hon. Sylvia Bacon, Trial Judge.

Before Newman, Ferren, and Belson, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Ferren

FERREN, Associate Judge: Appellant Richard Young, a firefighter, was seriously injured while saving the life of appellee Brownie Sprouse by attempting to catch Sprouse as he fell fifty feet from a bridge. Young appeals from the trial court's order granting summary judgment for all appellees in Young's personal injury action. Young's arguments concern the "professional rescuer doctrine" this court adopted in Gillespie v. Washington, 395 A.2d 18 (D.C. 1978). He contends, first, that because his rescue attempt was outside the scope of his normal duties, the professional rescuer doctrine should not bar his claim. For reasons set forth below, we reject this argument. In the alternative, Young argues that we should adopt two exceptions to that doctrine that would allow him to recover damages: one for "wanton or willful" conduct, and another for "independent acts of negligence." We decline to adopt the former and conclude the latter would not help Young, even if applicable. Accordingly, Young's claim is barred by the professional rescuer doctrine and we must affirm.


In October 1986, Sprouse applied for a job as a truck driver for appellee Contract Transportation System Co. (CTS), a wholly-owned subsidiary of appellee Sherwin-Williams Co., Inc. (Sherwin-Williams). *fn1 In violation of its own procedures, CTS allowed Sprouse to drive before CTS received a background report on him. Had CTS waited for the report, it would have learned that Sprouse had been fired from a previous job for reckless driving and leaving the scene of an accident and for customer complaints that his breath smelled of alcohol. Instead, on October 22, 1986, a CTS dispatcher sent Sprouse to Gray Drug Fair, another wholly-owned subsidiary of Sherwin-Williams, in Alexandria, Virginia. Sprouse testified that when he arrived in Alexandria, he received a load of pharmaceuticals weighing 4,000 pounds more than the legal limit of 48,000 pounds, with the knowledge of Sherwin-Williams employees.

Before setting off through the District of Columbia toward his destination in Cleveland, Ohio, Sprouse consumed, by his own admission, half of a half-pint of vodka. Later evidence revealed Sprouse's blood-alcohol level was .414--more than three times the legal level, see D.C. Code § 40-716 (b)(1) (1986)--indicating that Sprouse may in fact have had quite a bit more to drink than he acknowledged. A witness driving behind Sprouse's 18-wheel truck observed that for approximately fifteen minutes Sprouse was weaving from side to side, changing lanes constantly, and riding on the shoulders of the lanes. Sprouse testified that a small car cut him off unexpectedly, causing him to lose control of his vehicle. The truck smashed into the guardrail on the 11th Street Bridge, leaving the cab of the truck hanging precariously over the edge of the ramp. The driver's door swung open and Sprouse, clutching the steering wheel, was left dangling fifty feet in the air.

At the time of the accident, Young was a nineteen-year veteran of the District of Columbia Fire Department. He was assigned to Engine Company No. 3 on October 22, 1986, when his company received a report of a "truck on fire." Upon arriving at the scene, Young saw a small grass fire on the ground beneath the bridge. Having been told "there was a guy hanging out of a truck," Young proceeded immediately up a ramp toward the crowd gathered beneath Sprouse. *fn2 When he saw Sprouse's peril, Young requested a fellow firefighter to bring him a salvage cover--a piece of canvas normally used to cover furniture--with which he would attempt to catch Sprouse. Before the salvage cover could be retrieved, however, Sprouse began to fall. Young, in an act of heroism, raised his arms to try to catch Sprouse and broke the fall as Sprouse landed on him. Both men survived. Sprouse suffered a broken leg and various internal injuries, and Young broke his left fibula and ankle and strained his back.

Since the accident, Young has received a gold medal for heroism in the line of duty, as well as other awards. Other than a brief period during which he returned to light duty, Young was on administrative leave at full pay from the time of the accident until April 1989, when he was granted disability retirement. This entitles him to receive two-thirds of his pre-injury pay as well as payment of medical expenses, *fn3 D.C. Code §§ 4-614, -616 (1988). Young sued appellees for damages attributable to the personal injuries he suffered in the rescue, alleging "gross, willful, and wanton negligence" by all appellees. The trial court granted appellees' motion for summary judgment.


Our standard of review is the same as the trial court's when it initially considers a motion for summary judgment. Holland v. Hannan, 456 A.2d 807, 814 (D.C. 1983). Thus, we must rule for the moving party (appellees here) if "there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and . . . the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Super. Ct. Civ. R. 56 (c); Nader v. de Toledano, 408 A.2d 31, 41-43 (D.C. 1979), cert. denied, 444 U.S. 1078, 62 L. Ed. 2d 761, 100 S. Ct. 1028 (1980).


The professional rescuer doctrine (characterized in some jurisdictions as the "fireman's rule") generally bars those whose business it is to prevent injury and save lives from tort recovery for injuries sustained from known hazards in the course of their work. Gillespie, 395 A.2d at 20, 21. While the doctrine originally developed in other jurisdictions in the context of landowner liability law, see Walters v. Sloan, 20 Cal. 3d 199, 203, 142 Cal. Rptr. 152, 154, 571 P.2d 609, 611 (1977), the modern rationale for the doctrine--indeed, its basis in the District of Columbia--is that a professional rescuer has assumed the risks of his or her employment and is compensated accordingly by the public, both in pay and in worker's compensation benefits in the event of injury. Gillespie, 395 A.2d at 20. While the reality may be that a professional rescuer's pay and benefits are often inadequate to compensate for a given injury, the fact remains that a professional rescuer knows before accepting the employment both what the risks of the job are and what the compensation and benefits will be. The professional rescuer doctrine also seeks to avoid a potential proliferation of lawsuits, id., and thus represents a policy decision that the tort system is an inappropriate mechanism for compensating professional rescuers injured in the course of their inherently risky employment.

Young argues, first, that the professional rescuer doctrine does not apply to this case because, when injured, he was acting outside the scope of his firefighting duties. Young bases this argument on testimony about his particular job assignment within the fire department. At the time of the accident, Young was a "pumper driver," whose primary duty was to drive a piece of apparatus called the pumper and, once at the scene, to connect the hoses to the hydrant and to supply the necessary water to extinguish a fire. Testimony indicated it is a "rare occasion" when a pumper driver leaves that post and goes into a fire scene.

Young also points to the nature of this particular rescue to support his contention that he was acting outside the scope of his duties. There was uncontroverted testimony that a firefighter is not expected to catch, either bare-handed or with a net, *fn4 a grown man falling from a height of fifty feet. The only prescribed method of rescuing people trapped in high places is with a ladder, and Young's engine company--the ...

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