SOVEREIGN IMMUNITY / JURAL RIGHTS: Caneyville Volunteer Fire Department, et al v. Green’s Motorcycle Salvage, Inc., et al (SC 6/25/2009)

Caneyville Volunteer Fire Department, et al v. Green’s Motorcycle Salvage, Inc., et al
2007-SC-000517-DG June 25, 2009
Opinion by Justice Scott; all sitting.

The Greens sued the Caneyville Volunteer Fire Department (CVFD) and it chief in tort, alleging negligence in failing to timely extinguish a fire, causing damage to their property. They also argued that KRS 75.070 and 95.830(2), which purport to provide firefighters and fire departments with immunity from civil liability are unconstitutional. The Circuit Court dismissed the complaint. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding the statutes unconstitutional for violating the jural rights doctrine. The Court of Appeals ruled that by enacting the statutes, the legislature impermissibly extended sovereign immunity. The majority opinion analyzed the roots of the jural rights doctrine and the historic relationship between civil governance and firefighting. Applying the test from Autry, the Court concluded that the CVFD was an agent of the Commonwealth, engaged in the Commonwealth’s work and thus entitled to sovereign immunity. The majority also concluded that the fire chief was afforded qualified official immunity from liability under Autry, since his acts were discretionary in nature, not ministerial.

Justice Venters concurred, contending reevaluation of the jural rights doctrine and sovereign immunity was unnecessary since the original complaint failed to state a claim for which relief could be granted since the fire department owed no duty to the Greens to save their property. Justice Abramson concurred in result only, writing that the city of Caneyville was not a proper party to the case since the fire department was a county-authorized taxing district immune from suit under KRS 75.070. Chief Justice Minton (joined by Justice Schroder and Justice Cunningham) concurred in result only, arguing that the jural rights doctrine is a legal fiction without basis in Kentucky law or history. This minority agreed that the fire chief enjoyed immunity for actions performed within the scope of his employment, regardless of whether the action were mistrial or discretionary—rejecting these distinctions as a “judicial amendment” to the immunity statute. Justice Noble concurred in result only.

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