Minnich v. Med-Waste, Inc.
349 S.C. 567, 564 S.E.2d 98 (2002)

  • Minnich worked for a hospital as a public safety officer. As part of his job, he was helping load medical waste into a truck owned by Med-Waste. The truck started to roll down the hill. Minnich jumped inside to try to stop the truck. He was injured during his action. He sued Med-Waste for negligence.
  • Med-Waste claimed that Minnich’s suit was barred by the firefighter’s rule.
    • The firefighter’s rule states that firefighters who enter another’s property willingly in order to fight a fire are to be considered licensees, and as such, the property owner only owes the firefighter a duty to refrain from “wanton, willful, and reckless acts.”
      • So, even if a firefighter is injured fighting a fire that was negligently started by the property owner, that firefighter cannot recover tort damages.
      • See Gibson v. Leonard (143 Ill. 182, 32 N.E. 182 (Ill.1892)), which originated the rule.
  • Med-Waste asked the South Carolina Supreme Court a certified question as to whether or no the firefighter’s rule could be used as a defense in this case.
    • Although the case was brought in a Federal Court, since the Federal Court had to apply South Carolina State law, they asked the South Carolina Supreme Court how they would rule on this abstract question, as opposed to just guessing. This is called a certified question.
  • The South Carolina Supreme Court found that the firefighter’s rule could not be used as a defense in this case.
    • The South Carolina Supreme Court found that South Carolina negligence laws adequately address negligence claims arising out of injuries incurred by firefighters (and other public safety people) during the discharge of their duties. Therefore, they didn’t need to keep using the common-law firefighter’s rule.
    • The Court noted that the rule was being applied differently in different jurisdictions throughout the US, and in many jurisdictions it is being abolished. Therefore it was just confusing and unnecessary.
  • Although South Carolina abolished the rule, there are a number of rationales for keeping the firefighter’s rule, including:
    • Firefighters are volunteers who have assumed the risks inherent in their profession.
    • Injuries to firefighters are already compensable via workers’ compensation.
      • Liability from injuries to firefighters is better borne by the public rather than individual property owners.
    • Firemen enter at unforeseen times and go into unforeseen areas not open to the public, so it is not reasonable to require treating them as invitees or licensees.
    • In a way, the rule asks the landowner to pay twice. Since the landowner pays property taxes for the benefit of having fire protection, it isn’t just to require them to pay again when there is an injury.