Who is Liable for an Accident Involving an Emergency Vehicle?
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Who is Liable for an Accident Involving an Emergency Vehicle?

Posted on: December 11, 2020

When an ambulance, police car, or fire truck is speeding down the road with its siren blaring and its lights flashing, it means that police, firefighters, or emergency medical technicians are responding to an emergency. Other vehicles in the vicinity are expected to move out of the way and let them pass. Emergency vehicles often exceed the speed limit and drive through red lights to save lives, put out fires, or assist with other potentially life-threatening situations. Legally, they are permitted to do this when they are responding to an emergency. However, anytime a vehicle is speeding and driving through red lights, there is an increased risk of a traffic accident. When a passenger vehicle is involved in an accident with an emergency vehicle, determining liability can be a complex process. A skilled car accident lawyer will closely review the details of the accident and assist the victim with the claims process.

Traffic accidents involving emergency vehicles are rare, but they do happen. According to the National Safety Council (NSC), in 2018, 168 people were fatally injured in accidents involving emergency vehicles. Over half of the victims were occupants of the passenger vehicles. Police cars accounted for the most fatalities, followed by ambulances, then fire trucks. It is likely that more accidents involving emergency vehicles occur but are not always reported, unless the accident involved serious injuries or fatalities. 

Who is At-Fault?

One thing that is important to understand is the fact that emergency vehicles are usually owned by the government or are used on behalf of a government agency. This can make it difficult for a motorist to file a claim against the person who was driving the emergency vehicle at the time of the accident. In fact, in many states, emergency vehicle drivers are immune from personal injury lawsuits if the accident occurred while the driver was responding to an emergency. However, that immunity will depend on the details of the accident and whether the driver’s negligent behavior caused the accident. For example, if the driver sped through a red light but failed to turn on the vehicle’s siren and flashing lights, he or she may be held liable for an accident. The driver of the passenger vehicle may be liable if he or she ignored the sirens and failed to yield to the emergency vehicle.

Collisions with Police Cars

When a police officer is responding to an emergency, they use a range of devices in the police car to ensure that they arrive at the correct destination, and that the route they are taking is the fastest. That involves using GPS devices, police scanners, laptops, and other technology to communicate with dispatch. With all these devices, a police officer can become distracted while driving. A moment of distraction can result in a serious accident, particularly if the police car is traveling at a high speed. However, even if the police officer’s distracted driving caused the accident, holding the officer liable for any resulting injuries can be a complicated process. Police officers are supported by strong legal teams, often have personal relationships with government officials and judges, and will generally have the support of their fellow officers. For the average citizen, pursuing a personal injury lawsuit against a police officer can be overwhelming.

Although these cases can be more complicated, an experienced car accident lawyer will fight hard for clients who have been injured in a car accident involving a police car. It is important for victims to collect as much evidence as possible, including pictures of the accident scene and the surrounding road conditions, skid marks on the road, the position of the vehicles, traffic lights, stop signs, and any debris in the road. If the victim suffered injuries or property damage, he or she should collect copies of medical records, estimates for the cost to repair the vehicle, witness testimonies, and personal accounts from other people who were involved in the accident.

If a police officer was clearly negligent, he or she is bound by the same laws and expected to follow the same rules of the road as civilians. Even during a high-speed chase, police officers are expected to prioritize public safety and avoid driving in a way that will endanger other drivers, pedestrians, or cyclists. When a victim files a personal injury claim against a police officer, it is crucial that the claim is filed with the insurance company and with the police department as soon as possible. A car accident lawyer will protect the victim’s legal rights, communicate with the insurance companies, and ensure that there are no unnecessary delays, which are common when dealing with government agencies.  

Ambulance Accidents

When a traffic accident involves an ambulance that is speeding to an emergency, the accident can cause the occupants of the passenger vehicle and the occupants of the ambulance to suffer serious injuries, particularly if the ambulance was traveling at a high speed. The following key points about ambulance accidents are important to keep in mind:

  • Ambulance services are often run by local or state government agencies. When a victim files a claim against a government employee, it will involve unique forms and shorter filing deadlines.
  • Ambulance patients have the same rights as the occupant of a passenger vehicle who suffered an injury.
  • If there is a medical lien against the ambulance accident settlement proceeds, this can make it difficult to collect compensation.

Collisions with Fire Trucks

Fire trucks are the largest of the emergency vehicles, which means they can cause significant property damage and severe injuries if involved in an accident with a passenger vehicle. When rushing to put out a fire, a fire truck can reach speeds of over 75 miles per hour. As with other emergency vehicles, the person operating a fire truck is legally allowed to drive at any speed necessary to reach the accident as soon as possible. Motorists have a responsibility to move out of the way when they see a fire truck approaching with its lights flashing and the siren blaring. When they fail to do this, it can cause an accident. However, there are instances in which the firefighter may be liable for the accident, including the following: 

  • Driving while drowsy
  • Driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Reckless driving
  • Failure to follow the rules of the road in general
  • Defective vehicle parts
  • Equipment such as the ladder or hose coming loose, hitting another vehicle

Sovereign Immunity

The doctrine of sovereign immunity prohibits citizens from filing a personal injury lawsuit against the government, unless the government allows itself to be sued, which does not happen often. Although the doctrine applies to most emergency vehicles that are responding to an emergency, the following obligations are owed to other motorists:

  • Drivers of emergency vehicles are not automatically exempt from obeying state and local traffic laws.
  • It is acceptable for an emergency vehicle driver to disregard a traffic law only if it is safe to do so.
  • The driver of an emergency vehicle cannot simply assume that other drivers are going to yield the right of way, particularly at busy intersections.
  • If an emergency vehicle causes an accident after violating traffic laws without sufficient justification for doing so, the driver of the emergency vehicle and the driver’s employer may be held liable for any property damage and injuries that the accident caused.

What can Drivers Do to Avoid an Accident with an Emergency Vehicle?

There are some accidents involving emergency vehicles in which one of the drivers was clearly at fault. However, to avoid the stress, confusion, and potential injuries and property damage involved, motorists should keep the following tips in mind to avoid a collision with an emergency vehicle:

  • Drivers should slow down and carefully change lanes or move to the side of the road to let the emergency vehicle pass. Pulling over too quickly or suddenly can cause an accident with another vehicle or a pedestrian.
  • When approaching a stopped vehicle, motorists should use extreme caution. Drivers should move away from the vehicle and slowly, carefully pass it.
  • When an emergency vehicle is approaching from the other direction, motorists should turn on their hazard lights and slowly pull over to the right.

Freehold Car Accident Lawyers at Ellis Law Advocate for Victims of Car Accidents Involving Emergency Vehicles

If you or a loved one was seriously injured in a car accident involving a police car, an ambulance, a fire truck, or some other emergency vehicle, do not hesitate to contact the Freehold car accident lawyers at Ellis Law. These accidents are unlike other car accidents, since the drivers of emergency vehicles are often immune from liability unless they were clearly negligent. Our skilled and experienced legal team will conduct a thorough investigation and collect the evidence needed to protect your rights and secure the financial compensation you deserve. Call us at 732-308-0200 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Freehold, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout East Brunswick, Toms River, Middletown, Jersey City, Neptune, Hudson County, Union County, Essex County, and Ocean County, as well as Brooklyn and New York, New York.