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DIRECT OR INDIRECT: THAT IS THE QUESTION

By now, we hope that all of our readers are aware of the special protections afforded to firefighters by New York Law, and in particular, by General Municipal Law 205-a. If you are injured in the line of duty, you may have a right to compensation. In order to recover, a firefighter must prove that the line-of-duty injury was “directly or indirectly’ related to someone’s violation of law. However, the all-important question of whether a code violation was a legal cause of the injury is not always straightforward.

A code violation that is a “direct cause” of an injury is exactly what it sounds like. The violation was an immediate cause of the injury, and there are few dots to connect. For example, Firefighter Roberts was injured when he fell through a rotted fire escape while trying to gain access to the fire apartment. In this scenario, the failure of the building owner to comply with the codes requiring proper maintenance of the building’s fire escape directly caused the firefighter’s injury.

Where a code violation is an indirect cause of an injury, there is still a connection between the violation and the injury, but the connection is more remote. For example, Firefighter Ross responded to a fire that began in an ice cream shop in an overloaded power strip. While searching for victims in the residential apartment above the shop in zero visibility, she tripped and fell on an unseen object, causing her to tear her rotator cuff, which required surgery. In this scenario, tripping on the unseen object was the direct cause of her injury. But the code violation was the shop owner’s improper use of a power strip and extension cords to energize the numerous refrigerators and freezers, in violation of the electrical code. The shop owner’s electrical code violations indirectly caused firefighter Ross’s injury. The violation caused the fire, which produced heavy smoke, limiting firefighter Ross’s visibility as she operated in the apartment above the fire.

Another example of an indirect cause demonstrates the importance of a good and thorough fire marshal investigation and report. In this case, the fire marshal’s office determined that the cause of a 3rd alarm fire in a commercial warehouse was electrical in nature. While the fire marshal could not determine what exactly went wrong, he conclusively traced the origins of the fire to the electrical system. Our client was injured during overhauling, when a piece of ceiling crashed down on his head, causing severe cervical and lumbar herniations. The direct cause of his injuries was the falling ceiling. So, what would the indirect cause be when the fire marshal could not determine why the electrical fire happened? Buried in the
interview notes of the fire marshal’s report, we found our smoking gun. One of the warehouse workers told the fire marshal that a week before the fire, the warehouse’s lights were flickering and making noises and that he reported this information to the owner of the warehouse. Flickering lights are an indication of an electrical issue, and triggered an obligation on the owner’s part to investigate and fix the problem. But the owner did nothing, in violation of the electrical code.

When in doubt as to whether you are entitled to compensation for your injury, call the experienced lawyers at Barasch & McGarry. We have been representing injured firefighters for decades, and have recovered millions for our clients.

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