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High Court Bars Widow From Suing Over Death Caused by Roadside Rescue – Nowicki v. Pigue

By December 24, 2013Trucking Accidents

If you believe no good deed goes unpunished, a case in point might be found in the Arkansas Supreme Court’s ruling in Nowicki v. Pigue. In this case, Deborah Nowicki sued Kenny Pigue, a truck driver whose negligence she blamed for the death of her husband, Robert Henry Nowicki II, a state rescue worker who was trying to help Pigue deal with his disabled vehicle. While Robert Nowicki was pulled over, another truck driver crashed into the stalled tractor-trailer, killing Nowicki. His widow alleged that Pigue’s own negligence caused him to become disabled, and that he negligently failed to prevent the fatal tractor-trailer accident. The Arkansas high court ultimately agreed with the truckers and trucking companies that because Nowicki was a firefighter, his estate is barred from suing for injuries he sustained as part of his job providing roadside assistance.
In June of 2011, Pigue ran out of gas in the left lane of Interstate 55. Nowicki worked at the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s roadside assistance program. While responding to a call, he found Pigue’s disabled truck and offered help. Because of traffic, however, he couldn’t pull into a safer spot behind the disabled truck in the left lane, so he parked in front of the truck and flashed his emergency lights. As he tried to help Pigue restart the truck, another tractor-trailer struck Pigue’s truck from behind, killing Nowicki. Deborah Nowicki’s lawsuit alleged that Pigue had overloaded his truck; he should have pulled over in the right shoulder; the fuel system was not operating property; he had run out of gas; he failed to call 911 after Nowicki arrived; and he failed to alert other truckers to the stalled vehicle.
Pigue moved for summary judgment, saying Arkansas has a “Firefighter’s Rule” saying that a professional firefighter may not recover damages from a private party that stem from injuries he or she sustained putting out a fire—even if the fire was caused by the private party’s negligence. Nowicki argued that her husband was not a professional rescuer and that Pigue was wanton and reckless, so the doctrine didn’t apply. The trial court granted summary judgment to Pigue, saying the doctrine applies to all public rescue workers.
The Arkansas Supreme Court agreed, rejecting arguments that this was an erroneous expansion of the firefighter’s rule. It found that Nowicki was paid to assume the risk of a crash, putting him in the category of workers who should not be permitted to get extra compensation for actually sustaining a crash injury. The TDOT program that employed him had a manual noting that accidents lead to secondary accidents, which the program was designed to avoid by clearing roads more quickly. Employees were envisioned as first responders in many cases, with a duty to address traffic flow problems by helping disabled motorists, including those who had run out of gas. Thus, the court concluded, Nowicki undertook this risk as part of his employment in the TDOT program. Pigue had no duty to protect Nowicki from the risks he had already agreed to take, the court said. The high court also rejected her argument that Pigue’s conduct—running out of gas—was willful and wanton, which would negate the rule. A dissent disagreed that Nowicki’s job was “to confront danger.”
I agree with the dissent that this case expands the firefighter’s rule too far. Firefighters, police officers, soldiers and others are paid to assume risks. It’s part of their job description and part of why they are well compensated. Highway workers are not generally put in that category of worker, and I suspect they are not as well paid. It’s also worth asking whether truck drivers should be insulated from the results of bad decisions that lead to serious big rig accidents. If Nowicki’s allegations are true, Pigue made several errors that could easily have led to a serious crash. Overloading a truck, for example, is a known cause of instability, and a disabled car in the left lane is a sitting duck. In my job as a Missouri semi truck accident attorney, I help clients collect damages from trucking companies and drivers that displayed this kind of negligence.

If you or someone you love suffered serious injuries in a trucking accident that was no fault of your own, Carey, Danis & Lowe can help. For a free, confidential consultation, call us today at 1-877-678-3400 or send us a message online.
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