Fitzpatrick & Hunt Obtained Summary Judgment in Helicopter Water Drop Case Handled by Suzanne McNulty and Mark Irvine

A California State Court agreed with our arguments that a federal contractor providing helicopter firefighting services was immune from a negligence lawsuit filed by a firefighter injured by a water drop, who argued that the helicopter pilots should have seen him on the ground before dropping water.  The court granted summary judgment based on two immunity defenses: the firefighter’s rule and derivative sovereign immunity.

The firefighter’s rule bars claims by firefighters (and other emergency personnel) for injuries sustained while performing the very duties their jobs require. The rule vindicates a multitude of public policies, the most important of which is that of promoting public safety. While California does provide for an exception to this rule for acts causing injury independent of the known and foreseeable inherent risks associated with firefighting, we argued that this exception was inapplicable to Plaintiff’s claim in that the hazard of being hit with a water drop is a foreseeable hazard of which Plaintiff was aware. In addition, California has adopted the “the joint operations exception” – an exception to the exception - which prevents recovery when a firefighter is injured while performing joint operations with other public safety entities, even if the injury was the result of an “independent cause.” Because the joint operations rule is limited to public agencies, we also argued that our client, Helicopter Transport Services, LLC (“HTS”), working jointly with firefighters of another public agency (Cal Fire), was essentially acting both as and for a public safety agency, and as such should be deemed a public safety actor to whom the firefighter’s rule and its exceptions apply.

Derivative sovereign immunity protects contractors (such as HTS), who simply performed as the government directed which is what HTS did when it made its water drop in the exact location and time as directed by the government (Cal Fire). As argued in our Motion, if a government contractor acting within the scope of its contract and in accordance with explicit government directions is “left holding the bag” when the public agents working alongside enjoy immunity for the same activity, the public interest is compromised (Filarsky v. Delia (2012) 566 U.S. 377, 389).

The Court’s ruling in HTS’s favor on both grounds -- the firefighter’s rule and derivative sovereign immunity -- found no triable issues of material fact based on evidence that at the time of the incident HTS was operating under validly conferred government authorization and direction of the U.S. Forest Service pursuant to contract which included direction by the U.S. Forest Service to engage in joint operations with Cal Fire in fighting the fire. Further, that Cal Fire personnel located on the ground, directed HTS on when and where to drop the water and that the pilots dropped the water as directed after carefully looking for but not seeing anybody in the area. The Court further found that none of the facts as presented by Plaintiff defeated the application of the firefighter’s rule when the injury is caused by jointly engaged safety personnel, which the Court also found defeated Plaintiff’s argument based on the independent cause exception to the firefighter’s rule.