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Scott Cohen’s vehicle collided with the rear of Antonio Soares’s stopped vehicle because Cohen's vision was temporarily impaired by the glare from the morning sun. Cohen waved to Kris Ellinwood, a police officer who was directing traffic at the time, to approach the scene. Cohen assured Ellinwood that everyone was unharmed but did not mention the sun glare. Ellinwood was writing down information in between Cohen's and Soares's vehicles when Andrew Thornley, who did not see Cohen’s vehicle due to solar glare, struck the rear of Cohen’s vehicle, causing Ellinwood to be pinned between Cohen’s and Soares’s vehicles and crushing his legs. Ellinwood filed an action against Cohen, alleging that Cohen negligently failed to warn him of the solar glare, a dangerous condition. The superior court granted Cohen’s motion for summary judgment, concluding that the public safety officer’s rule shielded Cohen from liability. The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the public-safety officer’s rule barred Ellinwood’s negligence claim as a matter of law because Ellinwood could have reasonably foreseen that he could be struck and injured by another vehicle while coming to Cohen’s assistance.Receive FREE Daily Opinion Summaries by Email
Kris Ellinwood et al.
Scott B. Cohen et al.
NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before
publication in the Rhode Island Reporter. Readers are requested to
notify the Opinion Analyst, Supreme Court of Rhode Island,
250 Benefit Street, Providence, Rhode Island 02903, at Telephone
222-3258 of any typographical or other formal errors in order that
corrections may be made before the opinion is published.
Kris Ellinwood et al.
Scott B. Cohen et al.
Present: Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.
Justice Indeglia, for the Court. In this automobile negligence action, the plaintiffs Kris
Ellinwood (Ellinwood or plaintiff), his wife Erica Ellinwood, and his three children Tyler,
Hayden, and Mason Ellinwood appeal from the Superior Court’s grant of summary judgment in
favor of the defendant Scott B. Cohen (defendant or Cohen). 1 This case came before the
Supreme Court on March 4, 2014, pursuant to an order directing the parties to appear and show
cause why the issues raised in this appeal should not be summarily decided. After hearing the
parties’ arguments and reviewing their written submissions, we are satisfied that cause has not
been shown. For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior
Ellinwood’s wife and three children appeal from the hearing justice’s grant of summary
judgment on their claims for loss of consortium and loss of companionship. Since their
derivative claims are dependent on Kris Ellinwood’s negligence claim, we refer to the lead
plaintiff Kris Ellinwood as “plaintiff” for purposes of simplicity.
Facts and Travel
The pertinent facts in this matter are not contested. On the morning of December 23,
2009, Ellinwood, a patrolman with the East Providence Police Department, was directing traffic
on Roger Williams Avenue in East Providence, Rhode Island. Ellinwood was part of a threeperson police detail assigned to a tree-cutting project that had commenced at approximately 7:30
that morning. To assist with the tree removal, a large crane was positioned in the northbound
lane of Roger Williams Avenue, leaving only the southbound lane open for travel. Ellinwood
and a fellow police officer were controlling the flow of traffic to ensure that vehicles coming
from both directions could safely navigate around the crane.
Sometime around 8 a.m., the tree-removal work forced Antonio Soares to bring his
vehicle to a complete stop in the southbound lane, approximately 120 to 500 feet north of the
crane. The defendant, on his way to drop off his son at daycare, was also traveling southward on
Roger Williams Avenue at that time. With his vision temporarily impaired by the glare from the
morning sun, defendant did not see Mr. Soares’ stopped vehicle. The defendant’s vehicle
collided with the rear of Mr. Soares’ vehicle. Although the force of the collision was sufficient
to cause the airbag in defendant’s vehicle to deploy, no one sustained injuries in the accident.
After exiting his car, defendant noticed Ellinwood further up the road and motioned for
Ellinwood to approach. Ellinwood asked if anyone had been injured but did not question
defendant about the cause of the accident. The defendant assured Ellinwood that everyone was
unharmed. He did not mention the sun glare.
Ellinwood then attempted to collect Mr. Soares’ and defendant’s insurance and
registration information. Since defendant was holding his son in his arms, Ellinwood retrieved
defendant’s papers for him by reaching into the front driver’s side of defendant’s vehicle. With
defendant’s papers in hand, Ellinwood started to walk around the front of defendant’s vehicle
towards the passenger’s side of Mr. Soares’ vehicle. In between the hood of defendant’s vehicle
and the trunk of Mr. Soares’ vehicle, Ellinwood paused to write down some of the information.
At that moment, Andrew Thornley was driving southward, toward the scene of the
accident, on Roger Williams Avenue. Due to solar glare, Mr. Thornley did not see defendant’s
vehicle. Mr. Thornley’s vehicle struck the rear of defendant’s vehicle, causing Ellinwood to be
pinned in between the front of defendant’s vehicle and the rear of Mr. Soares’ vehicle.
Ellinwood’s lower legs were essentially crushed.
As a result of the accident, he suffered
multiple severe fractures in his lower legs, fractured both ankles, and sustained damage to his
Ellinwood commenced a negligence action against Cohen in Providence County Superior
Court on November 5, 2010. 2 In his complaint, Ellinwood alleged that defendant negligently
failed to warn him of a dangerous condition, to wit, solar glare.
Thereafter, Cohen moved for
summary judgment. In support of his motion, defendant argued that the so-called “public-safety
officer’s rule” barred Ellinwood from recovering. According to defendant, the risk of being
injured by another vehicle is one that a police officer would typically encounter when responding
to the scene of an automobile accident on a public roadway.
The plaintiff objected to defendant’s motion. According to Ellinwood, he could not have
reasonably anticipated the specific risk posed by the solar glare.
Ellinwood asserted that
Stanley Tree Service, Inc., National Grid, and Mr. Thornley were also named as defendants in
plaintiff’s complaint. All of plaintiff’s claims against these three defendants were eventually
dismissed by agreement of the parties.
defendant’s failure to warn him that the sun was blinding drivers in the southbound lane
precluded the application of the public-safety officer’s rule.
In a decision rendered on March 27, 2012, a Superior Court hearing justice agreed with
defendant that the public-safety officer’s rule shielded defendant from liability. The hearing
justice concluded that “[t]he risk * * * created by * * * Cohen was * * * certainly a foreseeable
risk that would be encountered by a police officer in these situations.” Accordingly, he granted
Cohen’s motion for summary judgment. An order to that effect entered on March 30, 2012. On
February 27, 2013, final judgment entered in defendant’s favor. 3 The plaintiff timely appealed
to this Court.
Standard of Review
This Court “review[s] a hearing justice’s grant of summary judgment de novo.” Sisto v.
American Condominium Association, Inc., 68 A.3d 603, 611 (R.I. 2013). We “employ the
same standards and rules used by the hearing justice.” Empire Fire and Marine Insurance Cos. v.
Citizens Insurance Co. of America/Hanover Insurance, 43 A.3d 56, 59 (R.I. 2012) (quoting
Generation Realty, LLC v. Catanzaro, 21 A.3d 253, 258 (R.I. 2011)). Accordingly, we will
affirm the hearing justice’s grant of summary judgment if our review of the evidence in the light
most favorable to the nonmoving party reveals that there are no genuine issues of material fact
and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. We review questions of law,
such as the one presently before this Court, de novo. Gushlaw v. Milner, 42 A.3d 1245, 1251
The hearing justice delayed entering final judgment in Cohen’s favor until after plaintiff had
dismissed his remaining claims against the other defendants.
On appeal, Ellinwood argues that the hearing justice erred in concluding that the publicsafety officer’s rule barred him from recovering on his negligence claim against Cohen. “[T]he
public-safety officer’s rule ‘bar[s] an injured public–safety official from maintaining a
negligence action against a tortfeasor whose alleged malfeasance is responsible for bringing the
officer to the scene of a fire, crime, or other emergency where the officer is injured.’” 4 Higgins
v. Rhode Island Hospital, 35 A.3d 919, 922-23 (R.I. 2012) (quoting Labrie v. Pace Membership
Warehouse, Inc., 678 A.2d 867, 868 (R.I. 1996)). To be shielded from liability under the publicsafety officer’s rule, the defendant, or alleged tortfeasor, must establish three elements:
“(1) that the tortfeasor injured the police officer * * * in the course
of [the officer’s] employment,
“(2) that the risk the tortfeasor created was the type of risk that one
could reasonably anticipate would arise in the dangerous situation
which [the police officer’s] employment requires [him or her] to
“(3) that the tortfeasor is the individual who created the dangerous
situation which brought the police officer * * * to the * * *
accident scene * * *.” Id. at 923 (quoting Rinn v. Razee, 912 A.2d
939, 940 (R.I. 2006) (mem.)).
In the instant case, there is no dispute that Ellinwood was injured in the course of
performing his duties as a police officer. The parties also agree that Cohen caused the situation
which brought Ellinwood to the scene of the accident. Instead, plaintiff essentially asserts that
Originally known as the “firefighter’s rule” or “fireman’s rule,” this common law doctrine has
more recently been referred to in our case law as the “public-safety officer’s rule,” see Rinn v.
Razee, 912 A.2d 939, 939 n.1 (R.I. 2006) (mem.), and in some jurisdictions as the “professional
rescuers” doctrine. See Restatement (Third) Torts § 51 cmt. m (2012). Regardless of its
appellation, the rule applies to police officers. See Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v. Vierra, 619
A.2d 436, 439 (R.I. 1993).
the second element has not been met because the injury in this case was from an unforeseeable
risk. He also makes a distinct but similar argument that this case falls within an exception to the
public-safety officer’s rule because Cohen failed to warn him of an unknown particularized
danger. We address each of plaintiff’s arguments separately.
Element of Foreseeability
Ellinwood argues that the hearing justice erred in concluding that the risk which resulted
in his injuries was one that a police officer would foreseeably encounter when placed in a
situation such as the one in which Ellinwood found himself. Ellinwood asserts that he could not
have known or foreseen that Cohen had waved him into a zone of danger. According to
Ellinwood, that zone of danger was created by the solar glare.
In making such an argument, plaintiff takes a mistakenly narrow view of the scope of the
public-safety officer’s rule. He suggested below, and reiterates on appeal, that foreseeable risks
when responding to a roadside accident would include slipping on antifreeze from a damaged
radiator or injuring himself on a bent fender but do not include the specific accident that resulted
in his injuries. Ellinwood is correct that the rule does not require public-safety officers to
“assume every possible risk which they may confront in their work.” Aetna Casualty & Surety
Co. v. Vierra, 619 A.2d 436, 438 (R.I. 1993). On the other hand, the immunity afforded by the
rule is not limited to only those risks which arise directly from the negligence that brought the
police officer to the scene.
As we have explained, one of the rationales for immunizing
tortfeasors under the public-safety officer’s rule is the doctrine of primary assumption of risk. 5
The other equally, if not more important, rationale for the public-safety officer’s rule derives
from public policy considerations and “fundamental concepts of justice.” Higgins v. Rhode
Island Hospital, 35 A.3d 919, 925 (R.I. 2012) (quoting Vierra, 619 A.2d at 438). “[P]olice
Under this doctrine, public-safety officers “are deemed as a matter of law, [to] assume all normal
risks inherent in their duties when they accept their positions * * *.” Higgins, 35 A.3d at 925
(quoting Day v. Caslowitz, 713 A.2d 758, 760 (R.I. 1998) (emphasis added)). Thus, in Rhode
Island, “the [public-safety officer’s] rule has not been limited to barring claims based upon the
very same alleged negligence * * * that occasioned the officer’s presence at the scene.” Day,
713 A.2d at 760. Our formulation of the rule requires only that the risk “can reasonably be
anticipated to arise in the dangerous situation which [the public-safety officer’s] employment
requires them to encounter.” Rinn, 912 A.2d at 940 (quoting Vierra, 619 A.2d at 438).
In the course of their employment, police officers are frequently called upon to respond
to roadside emergencies. Responding to such situations unquestionably places a police officer in
a perilous position, irrespective of the presence of solar glare. As cases from this jurisdiction and
others have demonstrated, it is all too common for a police officer to be struck by a vehicle while
responding to traffic emergencies. See, e.g., Rinn, 912 A.2d at 939-40; Vierra, 619 A.2d at 43637; Wietecha v. Peoronard, 510 A.2d 19, 20-21 (N.J. 1986) (Each of two police officers who
were hit by two separate vehicles while responding to a five-car accident could not recover from
those drivers whose earlier accidents occasioned the respective officers’ presence at the scene.);
Fordham v. Oldroyd, 131 P.3d 280, 287-88 (Utah Ct. App. 2006) (“professional-rescuer
doctrine” barred police officer from recovering from the defendant-motorist whose “prior act of
alleged negligence brought [police officer] to the location where he was struck by a third party”).
In particular, this Court has previously concluded that a police officer could have reasonably
officers and firefighters are compensated by the public to confront emergency situations * * *.”
Id. Public-safety officers may receive injured-on-duty benefits and other disability benefits. Id.
A citizen-taxpayer who pays for the police department to confront the risks that may arise from
his or her own acts of negligence does not expect to pay a second time should a police officer be
injured while confronting those risks. Vierra, 619 A.2d at 438. Here, Ellinwood acknowledges
that he received injured-on-duty benefits after the accident.
anticipated being struck by another vehicle when she was directing traffic at the scene of an
automobile accident. 6 See Vierra, 619 A.2d at 439; see also Rinn, 912 A.2d at 940 (risk of being
hit by a vehicle while investigating a traffic infraction is one that a police officer could
Here, Ellinwood responded to an accident that took place on what he conceded was a
very busy roadway, especially on weekday mornings. We conclude that, regardless of the
potential effects of the sunlight, it was foreseeable as a matter of law that he could be struck and
injured by another vehicle while coming to Cohen’s assistance. Accordingly, we agree with the
hearing justice’s conclusion that this case falls within the scope of the public-safety officer’s
Failure to Warn
The plaintiff also argues that the instant case is, or should be, considered an exception to
the public-safety officer’s rule because defendant failed to warn him of the danger from the sun
glare. In support of his argument that Cohen had a duty to warn, Ellinwood cites Mignone v.
Fieldcrest Mills, 556 A.2d 35 (R.I. 1989) for the proposition that knowledge of a particularized
and unknown danger creates such a duty. He asserts that Cohen’s failure to warn him about the
sun glare constituted an independent intervening cause of his injuries.
The crux of the public-safety officer’s rule is that it substantially limits the legal duty that
a citizen-tortfeasor owes to a public-safety officer. Granting the exception that Ellinwood seeks
In Vierra, we held that the public-safety officer’s rule was inapplicable because the driver of the
car that struck the police officer was not the motorist whose antecedent act of negligence had
occasioned the officer’s presence at the scene. See Vierra, 619 A.2d at 439. In the instant case,
there is no dispute that defendant’s collision with Soares brought Ellinwood to the scene of the
would significantly expand that limited duty. Our decision in Mignone did not impose a blanket
duty to warn of “unknown” dangers. In that case, the plaintiff-firefighter fell down a flight of
stairs while responding to a fire at the defendant’s home. See Mignone, 556 A.2d at 36. The
plaintiff alleged that there was a significant amount of water on the staircase. See id. The lower
court relied on the public-safety officer’s rule to grant summary judgment in the defendant’s
favor. Id. In affirming the grant of summary judgment, we described the limited duty of care
owed to public-safety officers as follows:
“[A]s a matter of law, a firefighter assumes all risks of injury that
are known or can reasonably be anticipated while discharging his
or her duty at the site of a fire. The homeowner has a duty of not
knowingly letting a firefighter fall upon a hidden danger, willfully
causing a firefighter harm, or otherwise causing the firefighter to
be exposed to a risk or hazard that could not reasonably be
anticipated to exist at the site of a fire.” Id. at 40.
Ellinwood appears to be relying on this language from Mignone about “hidden” dangers
in making his argument that Cohen had a duty to warn him of the “unknown” sun glare. 7 Since
Mignone, we have in effect limited this language by repeatedly declining to impose liability on
defendants for allegedly failing to warn or prevent harm to police officers from hidden perils. In
Day, 713 A.2d at 759, the plaintiff-police officer slipped on ice on the defendant’s walkway
while responding to an alarm at the defendant’s home. We held that the public-safety officer’s
rule was applicable and characterized Day as not a case “in which a property-owning defendant
failed to warn the public-safety officer of a hidden peril on the premises known to that
defendant.” Id. at 762. Only a few years later, in Krajewski v. Bourque, 782 A.2d 650 (R.I.
The plaintiff also cites to Labrie v. Pace Membership Warehouse, Inc., 678 A.2d 867 (R.I.
1996). Our decision in Labrie is inapposite. In that case, we held that the third element of the
public-safety officer’s rule was not satisfied because the plaintiff was injured while carrying out
a scheduled inspection of the defendant’s sprinkler and alarm system rather than coming to the
defendant’s rescue at the scene of an emergency or an accident. See id. at 871.
2001), a plaintiff-police officer slipped on ice on the defendants’ driveway. See id. at 651. The
police officer argued that the defendants’ failure to sand their driveway constituted a subsequent
independent tort. Id. at 652-53. We held “that the defendants’ failure to remove ice from their
driveway did not constitute an independent, subsequent act of negligence outside the scope of the
police officer’s rule.” Id. at 653; see also Martellucci v. FDIC, 748 A.2d 829, 830-32 (R.I. 2000)
(landlord’s alleged failure to maintain parking lot was not subsequent independent tort that
would allow police officer to recover for stepping in a pothole while responding to alarm).
Considering our refusal in these cases to find that the respective property owners had a duty to
prevent the police officer from falling upon a hidden danger, we cannot contemplate the kind of
significant erosion of the public-safety officer’s rule that would occur were we to find a duty to
warn under the circumstances of the instant case. Here, Cohen was standing on the side of a
public roadway, holding his young son in his arms, after just having been in an accident. The
plaintiff, acting in his capacity as a police officer, came to Cohen’s assistance. We cannot agree
with plaintiff that Cohen needed to have the prescience at that moment to warn plaintiff of the
possible effects of sunlight or else risk being liable in tort.
Accordingly, we find the application of the public-safety officer’s rule in this case to be
fully supported by both law and reason. Since we hold that the public-safety officer’s rule barred
Ellinwood’s negligence claim as a matter of law, we conclude that the hearing justice correctly
granted the defendant’s motions for summary judgment.
For the reasons articulated in this opinion, we affirm the judgment of the Superior Court.
The record in this case may be returned to that tribunal.
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RHODE ISLAND SUPREME COURT CLERK’S OFFICE
Clerk’s Office Order/Opinion Cover Sheet
TITLE OF CASE:
Kris Ellinwood et al. v. Scott B. Cohen et al.
DATE OPINION FILED: March 28, 2014
Suttell, C.J., Goldberg, Flaherty, Robinson, and Indeglia, JJ.
Associate Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia
SOURCE OF APPEAL:
Providence County Superior Court
JUDGE FROM LOWER COURT:
Associate Justice Brian Van Couyghen
ATTORNEYS ON APPEAL:
For Plaintiff: Sean P. Feeney, Esq.
For Defendant: David W. Zizik, Esq.