October 12, 1994
In your letter of October 3 you raised what is essentially the following question: Can the city recover the cost of extraordinary emergency services from the person to whom the services were provided? Your more specific question is: Can the city recover the cost of emergency fire calls at automobile wrecks where occupants have to be cut out of the vehicle or there is a danger of fire from spilled gasoline? Apparently in Tennessee, the answer is no, except possibly with respect to vehicle accidents in which gasoline or other fuel is spilled.
In support of that conclusion, I am including an excellent law review article I recently stumbled across on precisely that subject: Government Recovery of Emergency Service Expenditures: An Analysis of User Charges, 19 Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 971 (May, 1986). That article says that in the absence of legislation permitting recovery for government-provided emergency services, such recovery has to be based on the common law, and that, "The little precedent available indicates a hostile judicial attitude towards government recovery in such situations." [At 973]
In fact, as I read that article, there are only three cases involving common law principles of recovery for government-provided emergency services. [City of Bridgeton v. B.P. Oil, Inc., 146 N.J. Super. 169, 369 A.2d 49 (1976), City of Flagstaff v. Atchinson, T. & S. F. Ry, 719 F.2d 322 (9th Cir. 1983), and Brandon Township v. Jerome Builders, Inc., 80 Mich. App. 180, 263 N.W.2d 326 (1977)]. Only one of those three [Jerome Builders, Inc.] permitted the municipality to recover the cost of emergency services, on nuisance theory. But the emergency service in that case involved the repair of the defendant's dam. I suspect it would be a most rare occasion if a court in Tennessee held that an automobile accident was a nuisance.
However, Tennessee Code Annotated, 68-212-121 permits a municipality to recover the cost of hazardous waste and substance spills in connection with "driving on a Tennessee road, highway, interstate or other thoroughfare..." That statute, a part of the Hazardous Waste Management Act, is arguably broad enough to include the cost of clean up of fuel leaks arising from vehicle accidents.
Let me know if I can help you further in this or any other matter.
Sidney D. Hemsley
Senior Law Consultant