Emergency vehicles play a crucial role in responding to urgent situations, but their operations on the road can sometimes lead to unfortunate accidents. Let’s explore the question of when emergency vehicle operators can be held liable for car accidents that they cause. A recent New York Court of Appeals case sheds light on the legal principles involved.
The Privileges and Responsibilities of Emergency Vehicle Operators
New York’s Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 recognizes the unique responsibilities of emergency vehicle drivers and grants them certain privileges when responding to emergencies. This law allows drivers to exceed speed limits and go through red lights, provided they take necessary safety precautions and avoid reckless behavior without endangering life or property. While drivers of emergency vehicles enjoy certain privileges, they can be found liable if they act with reckless disregard, which is a higher standard than negligence.
On the other hand, New York’s General Municipal Law § 205-b declares that fire districts are vicariously liable for the negligence of volunteer firefighters. The central issue in the case at hand revolves around that discrepancy in language.
Privileged vs. Unprivileged Conduct
While New York’s Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 authorizes certain conduct of emergency vehicle drivers that would otherwise be violations, this “privileged” conduct is only authorized during emergencies and when lights and sirens are activated. In Saarinen v. Kerr, the court ruled that the statute's reckless disregard standard applies to privileged conduct. However, the court in Kabir v. County of Monroe ruled that the ordinary negligence standard applies for “unprivileged” conduct—conduct that the statute does not authorize, whether due to the vehicle’s failure to activate lights or sirens, failure to follow the statute’s other conditions, or when the law does not authorize the conduct. Therefore, absent an emergency, drivers of emergency vehicles must operate their cars according to the ordinary rules of the road.
The Case at Hand
In Anderson v. Commack Fire District, the plaintiff’s vehicle collided with a firetruck that drove through a red light during an emergency. The plaintiff sued the firefighter and the fire district. According to undisputed testimony, the firefighter stopped before the intersection and proceeded slowly through the red light as the law requires. The trial court ruled that the plaintiff failed to raise a triable issue regarding whether the firefighter acted with reckless disregard and granted summary judgment for the defendant firefighter. However, the court denied summary judgment for the district because there was still a question of fact as to whether the firefighter was negligent “in failing to see the plaintiff’s vehicle approaching.” Even though the standard for firefighters during an emergency is reckless disregard, the trial court held that fire districts are vicariously liable for the ordinary negligence of volunteer firefighters. The Appellate Division granted the district leave to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals.
The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and granted summary judgment for the district. The court noted that to establish liability under the reckless disregard standard, the plaintiff must prove that the emergency vehicle driver (1) intentionally engaged in an unreasonable action,(2) disregarded a known or obvious risk of harm that was highly likely to occur, and (3) demonstrated conscious indifference to the potential outcome. The court reasoned that given how hard the reckless disregard standard is to prove, the legislative intent was to avoid “the judicial second-guessing of the many split-second decisions made in the field under highly pressured conditions.” Thus, the reckless disregard standard must also apply when a fire district or municipality is allegedly vicariously liable for privileged conduct. Additionally, the court held that Municipal Law § 205-b merely shifts liability to the district; it doesn’t define a standard of care which Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 describe as reckless disregard.
Implications of the Ruling
The court’s ruling means that plaintiffs must allege and prove that the emergency vehicle driver acted with reckless disregard to recover from the fire district or municipality. While challenging, it is still possible to make a successful claim, even if the driver adhered to the law’s precautions and their conduct was privileged under the statute.
When it comes to understanding and addressing the liability of emergency vehicles in car accidents, the assistance of a seasoned attorney is essential. Yassi Law offers the expertise to discern between emergency vehicle drivers' privileged and unprivileged conduct. With in-depth knowledge of the relevant laws and regulations, Yassi Law is well-equipped to navigate the intricacies of this complex legal landscape. By entrusting your case to Yassi Law, you can have confidence in receiving the guidance and representation necessary to protect your rights effectively.
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