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Quigley v. Garden Valley Fire Protection District

California Court of Appeals, Third District, Plumas

April 19, 2017

REBECCA MEGAN QUIGLEY, Plaintiff and Appellant,
GARDEN VALLEY FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT et al., Defendants and Respondents.

         APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Plumas County, No. CV1000225 Janet Hilde, Judge. Affirmed.

          Jay-Allen Eisen Law Corporation, Jay-Allen Eisen; Law Offices of Reiner & Slaughter, Russell Reiner, Todd E. Slaughter and April K. Gesberg for Plaintiff and Appellant.

          Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith, Joseph A. Salazar, Jr., Jeffry A. Miller and Jonna D. Lothyan for Defendants and Respondents.

          BUTZ, Acting P. J.

         While assigned to fight a wildfire, plaintiff and appellant Rebecca Megan Quigley was severely injured when a water truck ran over her as she slept at the fire base camp. She sued, inter alia, defendants and respondents Garden Valley Fire Protection District, Chester Fire Protection District, and their employees Frank DelCarlo, Mike Jellison, and Jeff Barnhart for damages, claiming she was injured as a result of their negligence, a dangerous condition of public property, and defendants' failure to warn. The trial court granted nonsuit against plaintiff's complaint on the bases that defendants were statutorily immune from liability and the firefighter's rule prevented plaintiff from recovering. Because we agree defendants are immune from liability for plaintiff's injuries, we affirm the judgment.


         In our review of a judgment of nonsuit, we “ ‘view the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.' ” (O'Neil v. Crane Co. (2012) 53 Cal.4th 335, 347.) Thus, “the court must accept as true all favorable facts asserted in the plaintiff's opening statement, indulge all legitimate inferences from those facts, and disregard all conflicting evidence.” (Ewing v. Northridge Hospital Medical Center (2004) 120 Cal.App.4th 1289, 1296.)

         The “Silver Fire” broke out in the Plumas National Forest on September 19, 2009. The United States Forest Service (the Forest Service) initially managed the effort to fight the fire. It set up a base camp at the Plumas County Fairgrounds. The base camp included a sleeping area for firefighters. Forest Service rules required the Forest Service, when establishing a camp, to provide a quiet, shaded sleeping area away from smoke, noise, and dust, to post signs designating the area, and to rope off the area.

         The Plumas County Fairgrounds has a racetrack with a large grassy infield. The Forest Service set up a shower unit on the infield and arranged for an independent contractor to service the unit.[1] The unit included two 1, 500-gallon bladders to hold water: one bladder held fresh water and the other collected used water from the showers. Employees of the independent contractor would drive 30, 000-pound water trucks onto the infield to service the bladders. The truck drivers were never given a map or directions showing where they could drive on the infield to access the bladders.

         Fearing the fire might affect structures, the Forest Service called in a non-firefighting team, referred to as NorCal Team 1 (NorCal 1), to manage the fire and the base camp. NorCal 1 took control at noon, September 20. Individual defendants DelCarlo, Jellison, and Barnhart were members of NorCal 1. The three men, all retired Forest Service employees, became employees of defendant local fire agencies Chester Fire Protection District and Garden Valley Fire Protection District in order to serve on NorCal 1.

         Plaintiff was a Forest Service firefighter on a hotshot crew working the Silver Fire. She and her crew returned to the base camp around 9:00 p.m., September 20, after fighting the fire all day. The designated sleeping area was full, so most of the crew members slept in and around some horse barns in filthy conditions. Not wanting to sleep there, plaintiff asked her supervisor if she could sleep on the infield. Her supervisor agreed. Other people were already sleeping on the infield in tents and in sleeping bags on the ground. Earlier that day, DelCarlo had ordered a California Conservation crew to sleep near the shower unit, and he had authorized a different hotshot crew to sleep on the infield. The infield was never signed or roped off as a sleeping area.

         Plaintiff arose the next day, September 21, and left the base camp with her crew to fight the fire. During the day, Barnhart, a safety officer, inspected the camp, including the shower unit and the infield. He saw the tents erected in the infield by the California Conservation crew. Nevertheless, he recorded on a form that all sleeping areas were separated from parking, shaded, and posted as a “sleeping area (no vehicles allowed).”

         Plaintiff came back to the base camp that evening around 9:00 p.m. As was the case the previous night, the designated sleeping area was full, so her crew returned to the filthy horse barns to sleep. Plaintiff again received permission to sleep on the infield. As she had the night before, plaintiff slept on the grass in her sleeping bag.

         Around 10:00 p.m. that evening, an employee of the independent contractor drove his water truck onto the infield to service the shower unit. He retrieved the used water, and as he drove off the infield, he ran over plaintiff. The truck crushed plaintiff's chest, ribs, lungs and left shoulder, and it fractured her back. The accident permanently damaged her heart, lungs, and eyes.

         Following plaintiff's opening statement at trial reciting the above facts, defendants moved for nonsuit. Defendants contended they were immune from liability under various provisions of the Government Claims Act (the Act) (Gov. Code, § 810 et seq.).[2] Of relevance here, defendants claimed they were not liable pursuant to the immunity provided by section 850.4, which immunizes public agencies and their employees against claims “for any injury resulting from the condition of fire protection or firefighting equipment or facilities or, except as provided in Article 1 (commencing with Section 17000) of Chapter 1 of Division 9 of the Vehicle Code, for any injury caused in fighting fires.” Defendants also contended they were not liable under the common law firefighter's rule, which generally prevents a firefighter from recovering damages for negligence that ...

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