ST. PETERSBURG — The fire began about 5 a.m. on a Sunday in March. A man lit two burners to cook a meal, but fell asleep.
He awoke in his house at 4056 18th Ave. S to the choking pain of smoke. The fire had spread from the kitchen to the attic, and by the time firefighters arrived, the man was running outside as flames consumed his home.
South Pasadena fire Lt. Lawrence Wilson was on scene as part of mutual aid agreement with St. Petersburg. As they tried to put it out, Wilson was injured. He went to the hospital and missed work. He still suffers from pain. But his injury didn't come from the fire or smoke or a hazard caused by the blaze. Instead, he slipped on a piece of tile.
So, Wilson sued the homeowner.
The suit, filed against Carl Gregory, says Wilson's pain and suffering, hospital bills, legal bills and emotional distress were because the owner installed "slippery tile on the front stairs." Neither man could be reached for comment.
Wilson is able to sue Gregory, citing negligence and failing to maintain the property, because 23 years ago the Florida Legislature abolished the "Firefighter's rule," which for years had protected citizens from legal repercussion when emergency responders were injured on the job. In 1990, lawmakers tweaked the statute.
Essentially, they made emergency responders invited guests on properties, giving them the same right to sue as someone who slips on spilled juice in a Publix.
"I'm really unfamiliar with (the law)," said Michael Blank, president of the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters, a firefighter for 27 years. "I know the law exists," he said, but he could not recall anyone in St. Petersburg using it.
Statewide, though, examples abound of emergency responders who have sued homeowners in similar cases.
In 2007, Casselberry police Sgt. Andrea Eichhorn sued a mother and father after she slipped on their floor and injured her knee.
The parents' son, Joey Cosmillo, had fallen in their pool and lay unconscious when his mother found him. Eichhorn, who arrived after emergency responders, slipped on a puddle in the hallway and broke her kneecap.
Insurance covered the hospital bills, and she didn't lose pay for the two months of work she missed. Still, she sued the parents, whose son had been left severely brain damaged.
After the story sparked public outrage, Eichhorn dropped her suit. But the public, and the police chief, were unforgiving. She was fired soon after.
"You really have to take it on a case-by-case basis," said Richard Schuler, who has litigated in Florida for 38 years.
The lawsuits' success, he said, depend on the homeowners' degree of negligence. For instance, say a family stores gas on its property. When firefighters arrive, Schuler said, the homeowners have a responsibility to inform responders of the severe potential danger.
Schuler also offered a less radical example from a recent case he won. An EMT responding to a medical emergency ran across the home's front lawn and fell into a trench the homeowners had dug for a new fence. The man broke his leg.
Schuler said the EMT settled out of court for about $225,000.
"The homeowner should have greater knowledge about any hazards that are on the property," Schuler said.
So, lawyers say, Wilson's case is simple: It will depend on his ability to prove that the tile steps were indeed slippery, that the homeowner knew they were slippery and that Wilson was injured as a result.
This story has been amended to include the following clarification: Lawrence Wilson is a firefighter with the South Pasadena Fire Department. An earlier story was unclear on Wilson's employer.
Weston Phippen can be reached at [email protected]