Brantley v. City of Horn Lake: Civil Liability for Government Agencies

Brantley v. City of Horn Lake, an appeal from the Supreme Court of Mississippi, involved plaintiff who cut his forehead while fixing his pickup truck at his home. He called 911, and ambulance drivers arrived to take him to a local hospital.

1334532_ambulance.jpgIn addition to being a trained ambulance driver, EMT was also a city firefighter. After EMS workers bandaged plaintiff’s head, they placed him in the ambulance, so driver could take him to the hospital. After arriving at the hospital, EMS personal began to unload plaintiff from the ambulance to take him into the emergency room. At this time, driver lost control of the stretcher plaintiff was lying on, and he fell to the ground. As result of his fall, he was injured and had to pay substantial medical bills.

Plaintiff filed a complaint against the city, alleging EMS workers were negligent when they lost control of the stretcher and dropped him on the ground. As our Boston injury attorneys understand, when a city is sued, it will often to try to disclaim any liability by asserting immunity when performing essential government functions.

In Brantley, city made such an assertion and moved for dismissal of the lawsuit by filing a motion for summary judgment. In its motion, city claimed the state code provided immunity for the conduct of employees while performing activities related to police or firefighting services.

Plaintiff opposed motion for summary judgment, and trial judge denied city’s motion to dismiss. City claimed that it had filed a reply to plaintiff’s opposition, but it did not arrive in time for judge to consider it. City then filed a renewed motion for summary judgment citing the reply, and the case was dismissed.

Plaintiff appealed dismissal, claiming there was dispute of material facts, making summary judgment improper, and plaintiff argued that his injury was not protected by the firefighters’ exception from liability.

On appeal, the court addressed these issues. With respect to the issue of whether the firefighters’ immunity exception applied, plaintiff argued that, while ambulance driver was technically a firefighter, he was not engaged in firefighting duties when plaintiff was injured.

The court of appeals agreed that the firefighters’ exemption only applied when an employee was engaged in firefighting activities. Driving an ambulance was not related to fighting fires, and, while the legislature had ample opportunity to include ambulance drivers, it has not done so. Therefore the firefighter rule did not bar this action.

However, the court decided on its own initiative to have parties brief the issue of whether city would be immune from liability on the basis that it was performing a necessary governmental function. Normally, it is up to the parties to raise issues and the court to decide on them. In this case, the court of appeals asked and answered its own question. The court determined that city might not have been authorized to run an ambulance service, because that function would be under the jurisdiction of the department of health.

Ultimately, the court reversed and remanded the case for further proceedings, but placed the burden on the plaintiff to establish whether city was performing a mandated service.

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