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In re Certification of a Question of Law From the United States District Court

February 17, 2010

IN THE MATTER OF THE CERTIFICATION OF A QUESTION OF LAW FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT, DISTRICT OF SOUTH DAKOTA, SOUTHERN DIVISION, PURSUANT TO THE PROVISIONS OF SDCL 15-24A-1, AND CONCERNING FEDERAL ACTION CIV. 07-4163, TITLED AS FOLLOWS:
MANDI LEIGH GRONSETH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CHESTER RURAL FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT AND CHESTER FIRE DEPARTMENT, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Konenkamp, Justice

ORIGINAL PROCEEDING

ARGUED JANUARY 12, 2010

[¶1.] In answer to a certified question from the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota, we conclude that a fire fighter driving to a fire hall to respond to a fire call is rendering emergency care or service under SDCL 20-9-4.1.

Background

[¶2.] Tim Bauman is a volunteer fire fighter for the Chester Fire Department, in the Chester Rural Fire Protection District. He and his wife were in Wentworth, South Dakota, attending a Fourth of July celebration when Bauman received a page from the Department to respond to a fire. Bauman drove his personal pickup on the way to the fire hall, with his wife, Cheryl, as a passenger. Cheryl is a volunteer first responder. Bauman traveled south on Lake County Road 15, with his pickup's flashing lights on. He was speeding.

[¶3.] Also traveling on Lake County Road 15 was Areyman Gabriel, with Mandi Gronseth as a passenger. Gabriel was driving Gronseth's car and traveling north on Lake County Road 15. Gabriel attempted to make a left-hand turn onto Horizon Heights Road at the same time Bauman's pickup came over a hill on Lake County Road 15. The two vehicles collided in Bauman's lane of travel. Gronseth was severely injured.

[¶4.] Gronseth brought suit against Bauman, the Chester Rural Fire Protection District, and the Fire Department in the United States District Court for the District of South Dakota. Gronseth alleged that Bauman was negligent and that such negligence proximately caused her injuries. She further asserted that the Fire District and Department were liable for Bauman's negligence under the theory of respondeat superior. Gronseth later dismissed her claim against Bauman.

[¶5.] The Fire District and Department moved for summary judgment asserting, among other things, that, under SDCL 20-9-4.1, they were not liable to Gronseth. Known as the "Good Samaritan statute," SDCL 20-9-4.1 provides:

No peace officer, conservation officer, member of any fire department, police department and their first aid, rescue or emergency squad, or any citizen acting as such as a volunteer, or any other person is liable for any civil damages as a result of their acts of commission or omission arising out of and in the course of their rendering in good faith, any emergency care and services during an emergency which is in their judgment indicated and necessary at the time. Such relief from liability for civil damages shall extend to the operation of any motor vehicle in connection with any such care or services.

Nothing in this section grants any such relief to any person causing any damage by his willful, wanton or reckless act of commission or omission.

[¶6.] According to the Fire District and Department, when Bauman was driving his pickup to the fire hall in response to an emergency fire call, he was "rendering" emergency care or service. Because this Court has not yet interpreted SDCL 20-9-4.1 and the United States District Court recognized that whether SDCL 20-9-4.1 applies is determinative of whether the Fire District and Department can be liable for negligence, the court certified the following question to this Court.*fn1

The Defendant driver was driving his own vehicle to the fire hall from which the firemen would then drive an emergency vehicle to the scene of the fire. Is the driving to the fire hall "any emergency care or services during an emergency . . . ." so that SDCL 20-9-4.1 would preclude liability to Plaintiff passenger unless Plaintiff showed the causing of "any damage by [Defendant's] willful, wanton or reckless act of commission or omission"?

Analysis and Decision

[¶7.] Good Samaritan statutes, in various forms, have been adopted by nearly every state in the nation. Although these statutes are similar, in the sense they were adopted to encourage people to assist in emergency situations, the scope of the conduct protected by these statutes varies widely. Some statutes only protect the actions of medical personnel or specific emergency providers.*fn2 Other statutes, while possibly applicable to ordinary citizens, limit liability only for conduct occurring at the location of the emergency or service and provided to the injured person.*fn3 Still other ...


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