The Iowa Supreme Court has ruled in a case that defines when a volunteer firefighter is actually on duty. Andover volunteer firefighter Justin Faur was working at his job at the Johnson Valley Beef farm in rural Andover in April of 2005 when the owner of the operation, Dwight Johnson was overcome by methane gas in a manure pit.
Faur ran and told Johnson’s wife to call 9-1-1 and then was also overcome after he entered the pit to try and help Johnson. Andover volunteers were paged to the scene in just over one minute and rescued both men, but Johnson died four days later and Faur died ten days later.
The Johnson Valley’s insurance company sought a contribution for workers’ compensation benefits for Faur from the insurer of the Andover Volunteer Fire Department, claiming Faur was acting as a volunteer firefighter at the time of his death because he had been “summoned to duty” when he witnessed Johnson in trouble. A workers’ compensation commissioner agreed, and said the fire department insurer must pay half of the workers’ compensation claim.
A district court judge overturned that ruling and said a volunteer firefighter cannot be summoned to duty by circumstances, but can only be summoned by the fire department or some other official channel. The Iowa Supreme Court backed the district court ruling, saying the language in the law clearly focuses on whether the particular injured volunteer firefighter was “summoned,” not whether a summons was sent.
The high court says the statute could produce absurd results if it were interpreted not to require receipt of the summons. For example, if a volunteer firefighter was injured after being struck by a speeding boat while water skiing on a lake and it was later discovered his or her pager left behind on the dock had activated with a call to duty just prior to the accident, it would be absurd to conclude the volunteer firefighter was in the course of employment at the time of the injury.
The justices sent the case back to district court and say it is up to the commissioner to resolve this dispute between two insurance companies by applying the statute as interpreted in this opinion.
See the entire opinion here: Andover ruling pdf