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Liability in Accidents Caused by Emergency Response Vehicles

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 lawsif they are responding to an emergencyand 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 and/or guidelines.

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 Californiaand 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 claimmust 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:

  1. An emergency vehicle is not automatically exempted from obeying existing state or local traffic laws.
  2. The driver of an emergency vehicle may disregard a traffic law only when it is safe to do so.
  3. The driver of an emergency cannot assume that another driver will yield the right of way, particularly at controlled intersections.
  4. 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.

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