Giuffrida v. Citibank Corp.

Decision Date08 May 2003
Citation760 N.Y.S.2d 397,790 N.E.2d 772,100 N.Y.2d 72
PartiesSTEVEN GIUFFRIDA, Appellant, v. CITIBANK CORP. et al., Respondents, et al., Defendants.
CourtNew York Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Barasch McGarry Salzman Penson & Lim, New York City (Dominique Penson and James P. McGarry of counsel), for appellant.

Lewis Johs Avallone Aviles & Kaufman, LLP, Melville (Christine Malafi and Ann K. Kandel of counsel), for Citibank Corp. and others, respondents. Sullivan Papain Block McGrath & Cannavo P.C., New York City (Michael N. Block, Stephen C. Glasser and Stewart G. Milch of counsel), for Uniformed Firefighters Association, amicus curiae.

Chief Judge KAYE and Judges SMITH, CIPARICK, WESLEY, GRAFFEO and READ concur.

OPINION OF THE COURT

ROSENBLATT, J.

Plaintiff, a former firefighter, brought this personal injury action pursuant to General Municipal Law § 205-a to recover damages for injuries he sustained while fighting a fire at defendant's property. The lower courts granted defendant's motion for summary judgment. On this appeal we consider whether the Appellate Division properly applied General Municipal Law § 205-a when it held that plaintiff failed to show a reasonable or practical connection between defendant's code violations and plaintiff's injuries. Because we conclude that plaintiff made the necessary showing, we reverse the order of the Appellate Division and reinstate the complaint against defendant.1

I.

While serving as a member of the New York City Fire Department, plaintiff responded to a fire at a doughnut shop in a building owned in trust by defendant Citibank Corp. As plaintiff was battling the blaze, the alarm on his air supply equipment sounded, signaling that he had only six minutes of oxygen left. He notified his lieutenant, who directed him to leave the building along with his fellow firefighters. They too had been ordered to evacuate, owing to the intensity of the fire. During the evacuation, plaintiff operated the last water hose, thereby enabling his fellow firefighters to escape the burning building. As plaintiff finally turned to leave, his oxygen supply ran out and he was overcome by smoke, suffering severe burns and smoke inhalation.

Plaintiff commenced this action against Citibank and others pursuant to General Municipal Law § 205-a. That statute creates a cause of action for firefighters who suffer line-of-duty injuries directly or indirectly caused by a defendant's violation of relevant statutes and regulations. In his complaint, plaintiff alleged that the fire was caused by an accumulation of grease in the ventilation system of the doughnut shop's kitchen, and that defendant violated certain regulations requiring it to keep the building in a safe condition and to maintain a proper fire protection system. Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff had failed to show that the alleged violations were the proximate cause of his injuries. Supreme Court granted the motion, concluding that there were no triable issues of fact.

The Appellate Division affirmed, holding that plaintiff failed to raise a question of fact in response to defendant's showing that there was no "reasonable or practical" connection between the alleged violations and plaintiff's injuries. (288 AD2d 433, 434 [2001].) The Court held that "[e]ven assuming that [defendant] failed to maintain a properly-functioning fire protection system and that such failure permitted the fire to ignite or spread, the uncontroverted evidence in the record established that the plaintiff's injuries resulted from the depletion of his air supply, which caused him to be overcome by smoke" (id.). We now reverse.

II.

Traditionally, New York courts have followed the "firefighter's rule," which bars recovery in negligence for injuries sustained by a firefighter in the line of duty (see Santangelo v State of New York, 71 NY2d 393, 397 [1988]). The rule, which has its origins in the common law (see Gibson v Leonard, 143 Ill 182, 32 NE 182 [1892]) was initially premised on the idea that firefighters were licensees who took the property as they found it (see 143 Ill at 189-190, 32 NE at 183-184; see also Prosser and Keeton, Torts § 61, at 429 [5th ed]). Another rationale used in support of the rule was that firefighters assumed the risk of injuries that go with the job (see McGee v Adams Paper & Twine Co., 26 AD2d 186, 190 [1st Dept 1966], affd 20 NY2d 921 [1967]; Krauth v Geller, 31 NJ 270, 157 A2d 129 [1960]). More recently, courts have justified the rule on the ground that firefighters are well-trained professionals hired specifically to confront dangerous situations often caused by someone's negligence. As the Court stated in Santangelo, "as a matter of public policy firefighters trained and compensated to confront such dangers must be precluded from recovering damages for the very situations that create a need for their services" (71 NY2d at 397).

Over the last several decades, the legislative response has been clear, consistent and undoubtedly in the direction of doing away with the firefighter's rule. The first legislative action in this area of the law occurred in 1935, when the Legislature sought to ameliorate the harsh effects of the firefighter's rule by enacting General Municipal Law § 205-a (see L 1935, ch 800, § 2). That provision, in relevant part unchanged to this day, creates a cause of action for firefighters who, while in the line of duty, are injured as a result of violations of statutes or regulations. Specifically, it provides that firefighters or representatives of deceased firefighters have a right of action in situations where the "negligence of any person * * * in failing to comply with the requirements of any of the statutes, ordinances, rules, orders and requirements of the federal, state * * * or [local] governments" "directly or indirectly" causes the firefighter's injury or death during the discharge of his or her duties (General Municipal Law § 205-a [1]).

As its name suggests, early case law limited the firefighter's rule to firefighters. In 1988, this Court extended the rule to police officers, holding that the same policy considerations that barred firefighters from recovery for on-the-job injuries applied with equal force to police officers (see Santangelo, 71 NY2d at 397-398). Ever since Santangelo, the Legislature's response to the firefighter's rule has included both firefighters and police officers, and can only be understood by considering the enactments comprehensively.

In 1989, the Legislature enacted General Municipal Law § 205-e as a direct response to Santangelo (see L 1989, ch 346; Letter from Sponsor, Bill Jacket, L 1989, ch 346, at 6). The statute conferred on police officers the same benefits that section 205-a offered firefighters, namely, a cause of action for line-of-duty injuries caused by statutory or regulatory violations (see Mem in Support, Bill Jacket, L 1989, ch 346, at 5; Mem of State Exec Dept, 1989 McKinney's Session Laws of NY, at 2140).

Three years later the Legislature acted once again, this time in response to court decisions that restricted a police officer's cause of action under General Municipal Law § 205-e to situations where the officer's injuries resulted from "violations pertaining to the safe maintenance and control of premises" (L 1992, ch 474, § 1; see Sciarrotta v Valenzuela, 182 AD2d 443, 445 [1st Dept 1992]; Cooper v City of New York, 182 AD2d 350, 351 [1st Dept 1992], affd 81 NY2d 584 [1993]). Because police officers' duties—and the dangers they face—are not limited to protecting "premises," the Legislature made clear that the right of action under General Municipal Law § 205-e exists "regardless of where the violation causing injury or death occurs" (L 1992, ch 474, § 1). The practical effect of the 1992 legislation was to give police officers a broader cause of action than that available to firefighters, as the legislative enactments following Santangelo for the most part dealt with police officers.2

Recognizing this disparate treatment and responding to more recent court decisions that purportedly interpreted General Municipal Law §§ 205-a and 205-e too narrowly, the Legislature acted once again in 1996 (see L 1996, ch 703). This legislation, which was meant to "resolve, once and for all, confusion regarding the scope" of the statutory remedies offered to police officers and firefighters (Introducer's Mem in Support, Bill Jacket, L 1996, ch 703, at 8), generally accomplished three things.

First, it extended to firefighters the same protection police officers enjoyed under the 1992 law by amending General Municipal Law § 205-a to ensure that "[a]ny tortfeasor who violates a statute, rule or ordinance and injures the firefighter, whether he is at a premises or at a toxic waste fire or while responding to a call, will be liable" (Introducer's Mem in Support, Bill Jacket, L 1996, ch 703, at 9). The amendment also made clear that firefighters can sue regardless of whether the alleged violation at issue is of a provision which codifies a common-law duty or prohibits activities that increase the dangers inherent in a firefighter's job (see L 1996, ch 703, § 4).

Second, besides amending General Municipal Law § 205-e to reflect the same protections newly accorded to firefighters (see L 1996, ch 703, § 2), the Legislature gave police officers a right of action regardless of whether the alleged violator actually owned or controlled the premises where the violation occurred (see id., § 3).

Third, the lawmakers enacted General Obligations Law § 11-106, which largely abolishes the firefighter's rule by giving firefighters and police officers a cause of action in negligence for injuries suffered while in the line of duty (except as to actions against municipal employers and fellow workers) (see L 1996, ch 703, § 5). The 1996 amendments have been the last substantial ones to date.3 As the statutory and...

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