Liability in Accidents Caused by Emergency Response Vehicles
An interesting question in the field of liability has to do with who is
liable in the case of an accident involving an emergency response vehicle
such as a police cruiser, an EMS vehicle, or a fire engine. Although there
is a commonly-held belief that a "civilian" vehicle is automatically
at fault in accidents involving an emergency vehicle, this is certainly
not the case. In today's post, a personal injury accident lawyer will
explain how the drivers of emergency vehicles are expected to exercise
at least the same (if not greater) degree of caution as the drivers of
any other vehicle.
Exemption of Emergency Vehicles from Traffic Laws
Practically every jurisdiction has, as a part of its traffic code, a law
that exempts the operator of an emergency vehicle from obeying traffic laws
if they are responding to an emergency
and it is safe to do so. In most such cases, an agency will defer to a vehicle
driver's discretion concerning any traffic laws that he or she felt
necessary to disregard given the context of the situation. If, however,
an operator chooses to take unjustifiable risks, that operator could face
being charged with a traffic offense.
Vicarious Liability of an Employer
The Common Law of the United Kingdom and the United States has long held
that an employer can, in certain circumstances, be liable for the negligence
of an employee. This concept has been extended to include employees or
agents of municipal, state, or federal government whose carelessness or
negligence in the course of their official duties leads to an injury of another.
In most jurisdictions, vicarious liability of an employer can be claimed
only if it can be shown that 1) the employee was "on the clock"
at the time of the accident and 2) the employee's actions or behavior
was contrary to the behavior expected of a reasonably cautious employee
faced with the same circumstances or the employer's written policies
Sovereign Immunity of a Government Employer
Many people are surprised to learn that most federal and state government
agencies, and their employees, enjoy some degree of protection from civil
lawsuits under the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity. In general terms, Sovereign
Immunity has been defined as "The legal principle that says you cannot
sue the government unless the government allows itself to be sued, which
isn't very often!"
Lawsuits and Government Agencies
Over the years, the Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity has fallen into disfavor
among the various state and federal courts. In the absence of a specific
statutory (written) law, some courts simply reinterpreted the existing
common law to hold that sovereign immunity applied only to a narrow set
of circumstances. In other United States jurisdictions, those with a statutory
provision defining Sovereign Immunity, the doctrine was modified by the
respective state legislatures as part of the "Tort Reform" movement
of the late 20th Century.
In the latter situation, agencies that enjoyed Sovereign Immunity protection
were quite reluctant to lose what many private citizens had come to see
as an abuse of the judicial system. True to the axiom that "some
reform" is better than "no reform," many states eventually
enacted laws that eliminated some applications of Sovereign Immunity by
replacing those applications with the "oversight" of a new and
supposedly "impartial" state agency that was given the responsibilities
of 1) reviewing all injury and damage claims in which the state and/or
a state agency was named as a defendant and then 2) paying claims that
the new agency felt were legitimate or justified, or 3) rejecting claims
that were not deemed legitimate.
As an example, if you are injured in an accident in the State of California
and accident that was caused by an employee of a municipal or state agency,
you must first file a claim for damages with the California Victim Compensation
and Government Claims Board. This claim
must be filed within 6 months of the date of your accident or you will most
likely forfeit your chance to file a lawsuit later. If the state rejects
your claim or if you disagree with the settlement offered to you, only
then can you file a lawsuit against the employee and his or her employer.
Since each state has its own laws regarding lawsuits against government
employees and/or government agencies, you must seek the advice of a personal
injury lawyer who is familiar with the practices of the state in which
the accident occurred. Further, since there are almost always time limits
imposed on claims against a state agency that are significantly shorter
than the statutes of limitations that apply to non-government defendants,
it is strongly suggested that a personal injury accident lawyer be consulted
as soon as possible after such accidents.
In this post, we have learned that emergency response vehicles are, by
law, usually exempt from state and local traffic laws so long as they
are responding to a legitimate emergency dispatch. However, there remain
several legal obligations that are owed to other drivers:
- An emergency vehicle is not automatically exempted from obeying existing
state or local traffic laws.
- The driver of an emergency vehicle may disregard a traffic law only when
it is safe to do so.
- The driver of an emergency cannot assume that another driver will yield
the right of way, particularly at controlled intersections.
- If an emergency vehicle driver violates local traffic laws or an employer's
policy regarding traffic laws without sufficient justification for doing
so, and an accident is the direct result of the driver's actions,
both the driver and the driver's employer can be held liable for any
damages resulting from that accident.