High court: Law does not protect volunteer firefighters who run red lights

Wis. Supreme Court set precedent by ruling that a volunteer firefighter did not have government immunity when he went through a red light and was struck by another vehicle

OKAUCHEE, Wis. — A volunteer firefighter, who ran a red light in his own truck while responding to an emergency call, could be liable for injuries sustained in a resulting car accident.

WisBar reported that firefighter Parnell Burditt, a volunteer firefighter for the Okauchee Fire Department, was subject to suit because he did not notify nearby motorists with a siren before proceeding through the intersection, which violated a ministerial duty of his employment.

Firefighter Burditt stopped at a red light with flashing lights activated, but he did not trigger any audible siren before proceeding through it, according to the report.

Passengers in a vehicle firefighter Burditt collided with at the intersection alleged he was negligent and sued him, the fire department, and their insurers, according to the report.

A state appeals court upheld the lower court’s ruling that Burditt had governmental immunity from any lawsuit under a Wisconsin statute, according to the report. The statute grants immunity to volunteer firefighters for “acts done in the exercise of legislative, quasi-legislative, judicial or quasi-judicial functions” that require that actor’s discretion or judgment.

However, in a unanimous ruling, the Wisconsin Supreme Court reversed that decision, concluding the governmental immunity did not apply, even though firefighter Burditt was acting within the scope of his employment.

“[W]e conclude that Burditt is not entitled to public officer immunity because his acts in proceeding through the red stop signal without an audible signal violated a clear ministerial duty,” wrote Justice Ann Walsh Bradley for the court.

Under state law, it imposes a standard of conduct on volunteer firefighters citing that if they don’t give audible and visual signals when responding to emergency calls, then they can’t run red lights, according to the report.

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