California Court of Appeal Holds Government Code Section 850.6 Does Not Apply to Emergency Medical Treatment Unrelated to Firefighting

By editor on October 17, 2019

On July 30, 2019, the California Court of Appeal, Third District issued a decision in Donald Wilson, et al. v. County of San Joaquin, reversing a trial court’s finding that Government Code section 850.6 immunized a public entity from liability for the alleged negligence on the part of two firefighters who provided emergency medical services to plaintiffs’ infant son during transport to a hospital. Government Code section 850.6 provides public entities receiving “fire protection or firefighting service” from another public entity with immunity from liability “for any act or omission of the public entity providing the service or for any act or omission of an employee of the public entity providing the service.” The Court of Appeal held that the plain meaning and the Legislature’s intent of Section 850.6 does not apply to emergency medical services provided without firefighting efforts.

On August 1, 2011, an ambulance arrived at plaintiffs’ home in Stockton to find plaintiffs’ infant son in critical condition, with no pulse or heartbeat, not breathing, and unresponsive. Emergency personnel immediately started chest compressions and ventilation intervention. Shortly after, the City of Stockton’s Fire Department arrived on scene. The City of Stockton (“City”) and San Joaquin County (“County”) had an agreement in place authorizing the City’s fire department to provide emergency services as part of the County’s Emergency Medical Services system. The infant was loaded into the ambulance for transport to the hospital. Two City firefighters rode with the infant in the ambulance and performed various medical procedures, including bag-valve mask ventilation, chest compressions, intraosseous (within bone) infusion into the infant’s lower left leg, and administration of epinephrine. The infant was delivered to the hospital’s emergency department. While there, emergency room personnel noticed bruising on the infant’s body and ordered further testing. CT scans of the infant’s head, chest, abdomen, and pelvis were taken. Images revealed blood within the infant’s cranial cavity and fluid in a portion of the infant’s lungs. The infant died 10 days later. The coroner’s report listed the cause of death as “[n]on-accidental trauma in a child” and notes the infant “was possibly shaken.”  The City’s Police Department investigated the death as a homicide and the San Joaquin District Attorney’s Office charged the infant’s father with felony counts, including child abuse resulting in death. Eventually, the father entered a plea of no contest to felony child abuse.

The infant’s parents brought suit against several individuals and entities, including the County and the City, who undertook to provide lifesaving services for the infant. Plaintiffs asserted causes of action for medical malpractice, professional negligence, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. At issue in the present appeal was the trial court’s grant of summary adjudication as to plaintiffs’ second cause of action which sought to hold the County responsible for the alleged negligence of the two City firefighters for medical malpractice and professional negligence. The trial court concluded Section 850.6 provided the County with immunity under these circumstances, noting plaintiffs had not cited “any authority which would clearly limit the effect of section 850.6 to services directly relating to fighting flames, rather than to a broader category of firefighting services which include the emergency treatment of persons by firefighting personnel.” Judgment was entered in favor of the County. The present appeal followed.

On appeal, Plaintiffs argued that the trial court improperly granted the County’s motion because the immunity provided by Section 850.6 does not apply to the emergency medical services provided by the firefighters in this case or within the scope of the statutory term “firefighting service.” Under the trial court’s reading of Section 850.6, medical services fell within the statutory term. The Court of Appeal sided with plaintiffs.

In reaching its decision, the Court turned to the intent of the Legislature by the plain meaning of the statue. Section 850.6 provides, in relevant part, that whenever a public entity provides “fire protection or firefighting service” outside of their normal operational area, they are statutorily liable to the same extent as if they were operating within their own service boundaries. The public entity receiving the assistance is not liable for the negligence of the public entity, or its employees, providing the service. Since the County cited no authority suggesting the Legislature intended the phrase “firefighting service” in Section 850.6 to include emergency medical services unrelated to fighting a fire, the Court turned to Lewis v. Mendocino Fire Protection District (1983) 142 Cal.App.3d 345, a case interpreting a related provision, Section 850.4, which provides that a public entity and public employee are not liable for any injury resulting from the condition of fire protection or firefighting equipment or facilities or for any injury caused in fighting fires. In Lewis, the plaintiff alleged injuries as the result of firefighter negligence in attempting to rescue him from beneath a tree that had fallen onto his tent while he was camping. The fire district argued that Section 850.4 immunized it from liability. The Lewis court held that Section 850.4 did not immunize the fire district for a “nonfirefighting incident,” noting it was required to interpret the statute to allow for liability unless the Legislature clearly intended immunity. The Lewis court then cited the Law Revision Commission’s comment to section 850.6 which states a “…public entity is liable when one entity calls for the assistance of another in fighting a fire” as clear evidence of the Legislature’s intent to include all services attendant to “fighting a fire.”

The Court of Appeal further noted that in response to Lewis, the Legislature subsequently enacted Health & Safety Code 1799.107, to provide for a qualified immunity for emergency services and that public entities and emergency rescue personnel should be encouraged to provide. It states in relevant part: “[N]either a public entity nor emergency rescue personnel shall be liable for any injury caused by an action taken by the emergency rescue personnel acting within the scope of their employment to provide emergency services, unless the action taken was performed in bad faith or in a grossly negligent manner.” It further defined “emergency services” as “first aid and medical services, rescue procedures and transportation, or other related activities necessary to insure the health or safety of a person in imminent peril.”

The Court of Appeal went on to cite the Law Revision Commission’s comment to section 850.6 as clear evidence that the Legislature intended “firefighting service” to mean activities directly related to “fighting a fire,” suggesting the Legislature intended Section 850.6 to be interpreted like section 850.4 to only immunize fire protection and firefighting activities, not emergency medical treatment. In the end, the Court of Appeal confirmed that the Legislature had provided two levels of governmental immunity for injuries resulting from the negligent conduct of firefighters: (1) Government Code section 850.4, which provides absolute immunity when firefighters cause injuries during firefighting activities and (2) Health & Safety Code section 1799.107, which provides qualified immunity for injuries resulting from the negligent conduct of firefighters by their emergency medical services without bad faith or gross negligence.

The Court of Appeal’s decision provides a clear exclusion to the term “firefighting services” as used in Section 850.6. Whereas section 850.4 uses the statutory phrase, “in fighting fires” and section 850.6 uses “firefighting service,” this opinion draws a bright line rule that section 850.6 cannot encompass emergency medical services under the regular services a firefighter renders while fighting a fire. As such, to determine whether the immunity in section 850.6 applies, a public entity should clearly identify the circumstances under which a firefighter is providing his or her services and the nature of those services. This opinion also serves as a reminder that under Section 850.6, a public entity providing the service and the public entity receiving the service may by agreement determine the extent, if any, to which the public entity receiving the service will be required to indemnify the public entity providing the service.

A copy of the decision can be found here.

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