In most car accidents resulting in injury, lawsuits may be brought on the theory of ordinary negligence. That is, the at-fault driver breached the duty to operate the vehicle safely, which proximately resulted in injury to passengers, other motorists or pedestrians.
However, emergency responders – including police officers – are held to a different standard when they are in the midst of responding to an emergency.
New York Vehicle & Traffic Law, Section 1104(e) pertains to the standard of negligence applied when an emergency vehicle driver causes and accident with injuries in the course of carrying out his or her official duties. The statute grants drivers of emergency vehicles the authority to:
- Stop, stand or park in certain areas otherwise prohibited
- Proceed past a red signal or stop sign (but only after slowing down as necessary for safe operation)
- Exceed maximum speed limits so long as life and property is not endangered
- Disregard regulations regarding direction of traffic
These allowances are subject to a host of exceptions, and are only applicable when the emergency vehicle’s audible and visual emergency signals are sounded as reasonably necessary.
Our experienced New York City accident lawyers recognize police officers, firefighters and ambulance drivers are held to the standard of “reckless disregard” in negligence law. This means plaintiffs injured by an emergency vehicle responding to an active emergency must prove the driver acted with reckless disregard for the safety of others. It’s not enough to simply prove fault. The fault must include reckless operation.
In the recent case of Frezzell v. City of New York, the injured person was himself a police officer who was struck and seriously injured by a fellow officer. Such instances are governed by not only Section 1104, but also N.Y. GMU Law 205-e, regarding right of action to certain injured or representatives of certain deceased police officers.
The underlying incident occurred in September 2006. A New York City Police officer and his partner received an urgent radio call from another officer indicating active foot pursuit of an armed man at a public housing development a few blocks away. Within a few seconds, the driver activated the lights and sirens, drove from Central Park to Columbus Avenue and drove against the traffic flow on a one-way street.
Plaintiff, also a police officer, was with his partner nearby when he received word of the same call. He responded by traveling down that same one-way street – in the correct direction. The vehicles attempted evasive maneuvers, but collided anyway.
Plaintiff commenced action against his fellow officer and the city, asserting violations of state vehicle and traffic laws. Following discovery, defendants moved for summary judgment on grounds plaintiff failed to establish a cause of action under the reckless disregard standard.
Defendants supported their case with multiple witness statements, accident reports and transcripts of plaintiff’s testimony. Plaintiff, meanwhile, submitted only a single affidavit and one accident report.
The Supreme Court granted defendants’ motion for summary judgment, noting the at-fault driver was traveling just 15 to 20 miles-per-hour in a 30-mph zone and attempted to avoid collision. The court found “at best, (plaintiff) alleged mere negligence,” which is insufficient to succeed in a damage claim against an officer responding to an active emergency.
The appellate division affirmed (with two justices dissenting), as did ultimately the New York Court of Appeals. The appeals court found defendants’ burden of proof was met: The officer’s lights and sirens were on, he was responding to an active emergency, he was traveling well below the speed limit and took evasive action to avoid a crash – all of which supported the assertion his actions were not tantamount to reckless disregard.
The Law Offices of Nicholas Rose, PLLC offers free consultations. Call 1-877-313-7673.
Frezzell v. City of New York, Nov. 20, 2014, New York Court of Appeals
More Blog Entries:
Hough v. McKiernan – Suing for Damages After a Violent Attack, Nov. 11, 2014, New York City Injury Lawyer Blog