If you sustain serious injuries in a car accident, the other driver can be held liable if there was negligence—that is, he or she failed to exercise “ordinary care” to reasonably avoid the accident. But there are exceptions to this general rule. If you are hit by a police officer, for example, a New York court may apply a higher standard than ordinary negligence based on the circumstances of the officer's actions.
A Recent Example
The Appellate Division, Fourth Department, recently addressed such a case. The victim was driving his vehicle when it was struck by another car driven by a member of the Rochester Police Department. The victim sued the officer and the City of Rochester, alleging he suffered serious injuries as a result of the accident.
The case was tried without a jury before Monroe County Supreme Court. The judge dismissed the victim's complaint. In a decision issued on September 26 of this year, the Fourth Department said the evidence supported the trial court's verdict.
That evidence showed that at the time of the accident, the police officer was in the process of answering a call from his dispatcher reporting a “domestic dispute.” The officer admitted he was driving in excess of the posted local speed limit. Normally, speeding would demonstrate negligence. But New York law grants “emergency vehicles,” including police cars, the privilege of exceeding speed limits “so long as he does not endanger life or property.”
Furthermore, as the Fourth Department explained, any officer “engaged in the emergency operation of a vehicle” is not held to the same negligence standard as civilian drivers. Instead, the victim here had to prove the officer acted with “reckless disregard for the safety of others.” Neither the Supreme Court nor the Fourth Department believed the victim proved that in this case.
Special Rules for Police
The Fourth Department based its decision on a 2001 holding by New York's Court of Appeals that the “emergency operation” of a vehicle includes any police response to a dispatch call, even if the police themselves do not necessarily believe there is an emergency. The Court of Appeals was also addressing a case where a speeding police car responded to a domestic disturbance call and struck a civilian vehicle. At trial, the jury ruled for the victims. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding the trial court failed to instruct the jury that the police enjoyed special privileges when responding to a dispatch, even one considered at the time a non-emergency by the dispatcher.
While New York courts make it more difficult to hold police officers accountable for negligent or reckless driving, they do not enjoy total immunity. If you are injured as the result of a collision with a police vehicle, it is still important to work with a qualified New York car accident attorney who can advise you of your rights. Contact our office today if you have any questions.