Ambulance and Police Crash Claims in California
Ambulance and police crash claims in California have very specific rules and exceptions with regard to civil liability for personal injury or wrongful death when an emergency vehicle is involved in a traffic collision with another automobile, motorcycle, bicycle or pedestrian. Obviously, public policy in the Golden State is to allow police, paramedics and firemen to respond quickly to emergency situations especially in the case of life-threatening scenarios. CA law, therefore, provides a lot of leeway for these vehicles to disregard certain traffic signals and rules of the road. However, this liberty is not without limits nor does it excuse reckless driving techniques that cause an undue risk of harm to the public. The laws of the California Vehicle Code in this regard are as follows:When are Police or Emergency Medical Personnel Allowed to Avoid Certain Traffic Laws?
California Vehicle Code 21055 provides that a police car, ambulance, fire truck or other emergency vehicle may avoid having to comply with many of the specified rules of the road so long as certain criteria are met as follows:
- Emergency Vehicle Engaged in an Emergency Situation: "(a) If the vehicle is being driven in response to an emergency call or while engaged in rescue operations or is being used in the immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law or is responding to, but not returning from, a fire alarm, except that fire department vehicles are exempt whether directly responding to an emergency call or operated from one place to another as rendered desirable or necessary by reason of an emergency call and operated to the scene of the emergency or operated from one fire station to another or to some other location by reason of the emergency call.”
- Siren and Lights Are Activated: "(b) If the driver of the vehicle sounds a siren as may be reasonably necessary and the vehicle displays a lighted red lamp visible from the front as a warning to other drivers and pedestrians.”
California Vehicle Code 165 defines “emergency vehicles” as follows:
- Any “publicly owned ambulance, lifeguard or life saving equipment” or any “privately owned” vehicle commissioned by the California Highway Patrol to respond to emergency calls;
- Any “publicly owned vehicle” used as follows: (a) by “any federal, state, or local agency or department, or district employing peace officers”; (b) forestry or fire department vehicles; (c) public vehicles equipped and used either for fighting fires, or towing or servicing other vehicles, caring for injured persons, or repairing damaged lighting or electrical equipment; (d) any state owned vehicle used in responding to emergency fire and rescue calls; (e) U.S. Federal Agency vehicles used for emergency response, fire fighting or life saving; and (f) any other vehicle commissioned by the CHP with an authorized emergency vehicle permit.
General Rule: CA Vehicle Code section 17004 provides: “A public employee is not liable for civil damages on account of personal injury to or death of any person or damage to property resulting from the operation, in the line of duty, of an authorized emergency vehicle while responding to an emergency call or when in the immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law, or when responding to but not upon returning from a fire alarm or other emergency call.”
Exception to the Rule: California Vehicle Code 21056 states that CVC 17004 and CVC 21055, “ does not relieve the driver of a vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons using the highway, nor protect him from the consequences of an arbitrary exercise of the privileges granted in that section.”
What does this all mean? It means that emergency personnel cannot be held liable for violating laws when they are en route to an emergency but, must still act safely in discharging their duties. The best summation I have seen bringing all these rules and exceptions together is in the case law decision of City of Sacramento v. Superior Court (1982) 131 Cal.App.3d 395, 402–403, where the court held as follows:
“…where the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle is engaged in a specified emergency function he may violate certain rules of the road, such as speed and right of way laws, if he activates his red light and where necessary his siren in order to alert other users of the road to the situation. In such circumstances the driver may not be held to be negligent solely upon the violation of specified rules of the road, but may be held to be negligent if he fails to exercise due regard for the safety of others under the circumstances. Where the driver of an emergency vehicle fails to activate his red light, and where necessary his siren, he is not exempt from the rules of the road even though he may be engaged in a proper emergency function, and negligence may be based upon the violation of the rules of the road.”
In other words, police cars involved in high speed chases, fire trucks rushing to a ten alarm blaze, and ambulance drivers responding to a call for emergency services may run through red lights, cross over into opposite lanes of traffic, travel at speeds in excess of the stated speed limit and engage in any number of other driving techniques that would normally violate the rules of the road so long as they are emergency vehicles and responding to emergency situations, with their lights and sirens on. They may not do so otherwise and even if they are engaged in a urgent call with activated flashers and horns, they are still under an obligation to “exercise due regard for the safety of others.”Importance of Retaining a California Personal Injury Attorney Familiar With Ambulance and Police Crash Claims if you Suffer Injury or the Death of a Loved one
Because the law protects the activities involved in providing emergency services such as police pursuits or exigent circumstances, it is important to have a lawyer analyze the facts of any particular crash to determine if (a) it truly falls under this exemption; and (b) despite the exemption, there is still civil liability for payment of money damages to the victim due to a lack of reasonable care and negligence on the part of the public employee. It should be further noted that the time deadlines (so-called “statutes of limitation” are much shorter) for claims against public entities. An injured party or the surviving spouse, parent or child of a wrongful death decedent usually has a mere 6 months to file a “Government Tort Claim” to put the public entity on notice of a pending action. Time deadlines vary from there depending upon the response (or lack thereof) to the initial claim but, a lawsuit must be filed in court within a fairly short time frame following a rejection or failure to respond to the out of court ‘Govt. Tort Claim’. This makes it CRUCIAL to not only consult with a lawyer but, to do so AS SOON AS POSSIBLE following this type of incident.Example of Steven M. Sweat, APC Representation in a Police Vehicle Collision Injury Claim
Our office recently represented an individual stopped at an intersection on his way to work. A Los Angeles County Sheriff deputy, coming off a double shift, fell asleep behind the wheel of his cruiser and collided into the back of our client causing serious back injuries including a herniated disc requiring surgical repair. The analysis here was that the officer was not in fact en route to an emergency with flashing lights and sirens so the exemption did not apply. Under California Government Code 815.2, L.A. County was liable for the negligent acts of their employee and we were able to obtain a substantial six figure settlement for the victim. If you are involved in a traffic collision with a police car, fire truck, ambulance or any other emergency vehicle anywhere in California from San Diego to Orange County to the Inland Empire and up through Central and Northern California, call our office toll free at 866-966-5240 for a free contact us on your legal rights!Sources