Negligence vs. "Reckless Disregard" in Emergency Vehicle Accidents

Emergency vehicles, including police cars and ambulances, are afforded special privileges underNew York State law. Anyone driving an authorized emergency vehicle may disregard the ordinary rules of the road provided he or she does not exhibit "reckless disregard for the safety of others." This is significantly higher than the standard applied to most drivers, who must exercise "due care" to avoid liability for negligence in the event of an automobile accident.

On November 20, New York's highest court addressed the application of the "reckless disregard" standard in a case involving the collision of two emergency vehicles. One night in September 2006, two different NYPD units responded to an emergency call about an officer pursuing a suspect with a firearm. The plaintiff was an officer driving one of the vehicles. He and his partner proceeded eastbound on a one-way street towards the scene. A second police vehicle approached, traveling the wrong way on an intersecting one-way street. The second vehicle turned and eventually collided with the plaintiff's vehicle.

The plaintiff sued the driver of the second vehicle and the City of New York. Manhattan Supreme Court granted the defendants' motion for summary judgment. A divided Appellate Division, First Department, affirmed the Supreme Court in anApril 2013 decision. Two of the five justices on the First Department panel thought a jury might conclude the defendant demonstrated "reckless disregard" by traveling the wrong way on a one-way street and, as well as other facts alleged by the plaintiff.

But the New York Court of Appeals sided with the Supreme Court and the First Department majority. The courtunanimously held summary judgment was appropriate based on the facts of this case. Judge Victoria A. Graffeo, writing for the Court of Appeals, said that, although the defendant was driving against the flow of traffic when the accident occurred, it was a privileged act, absent additional evidence of "reckless disregard of a highly probable risk of harm." In fact, the evidence showed the defendant was traveling below the speed limit on a clear evening, and he made every effort to brake in order to avoid hitting the plaintiff.

The plaintiff also claimed the defendant failed to keep his siren lights running and may have had an obstructed view when he turned onto the road where the plaintiff's vehicle was located. Judge Graffeo said neither argument defeated summary judgment. She said that was at best negligence, not the higher standard of "reckless disregard," and in any case, there was sufficient evidence establishing the defendant was properly running his siren.

Although emergency vehicles may enjoy a higher degree of legal protection, they are not beyond the law completely. If you were injured as the result of any act of reckless driving, even one by a law enforcement or other emergency vehicle, it is important you speak with an experienced New York accident attorney right away who can help assess your situation. Contact our office today if you have any questions or concerns.