Court of Appeals Clarifies "Reckless Disregard" Standard for Public Vehicles

​In New York, the rules of the road require drivers to exercise ordinary care in operating their vehicles. A driver may be held liable for “ordinary negligence” if he or she fails to observe basic traffic rules. But these standards are not necessarily applicable to government-owned vehicles. A police car or an ambulance responding to an emergency, for example, may disregard traffic laws in a manner that would otherwise constitute ordinary negligence.

But public employees can still be held responsible if their driving exhibits a “reckless disregard” for the safety of others. New York's highest court recently considered the applicability of this standard when dealing with an accident caused by a vehicle carrying out a decidedly non-emergency function—sweeping public streets.

DeLeon v. New York City Sanitation Department

In October 2010, a New York City-owned street sweeper rear-ended another vehicle. The driver of the other vehicle sued the city, alleging he suffered serious injuries as a result of the street sweeper driver's negligence. While there was no dispute the street sweeper hit the plaintiff, each party blamed the other for the accident. The plaintiff argued the street sweeper was traveling at a “high rate of speed”; conversely, the city claimed the plaintiff “abruptly entered the lane” where the street sweeper was performing routine maintenance.

Before Bronx Supreme Court, both sides moved for summary judgment. The court granted the city's motion and dismissed the complaint. On appeal, the Appellate Division, First Department, held the Supreme Court applied the incorrect legal standard. The city argued its driver's conduct was subject to a “reckless disregard” standard of liability. The First Department said the city must be held to a lower standard of “ordinary negligence.” And although the plaintiff was not entitled to summary judgment under this lower standard—as there remained disputed facts with respect to his own responsibility for the accident—neither was the city.

The First Department subsequently permitted the city to appeal its decision to the Court of Appeals. In an unsigned June 10 opinion, the Court unanimously agreed the city was not entitled to summary judgment—but the First Department applied the incorrect legal standard. Instead, the Court of Appeals agreed with the Supreme Court and the city that the “reckless disregard” standard applied here. This standard applies whenever a vehicle is “actually engaged in work on a highway,” which includes street sweeping operations.

But even applying the reckless disregard standard, the Court of Appeals held, there remain factual issues with respect to the conduct of the street sweeper's driver. The Court credited the driver's testimony that “when he observed the [plaintiff's] vehicle, he did not slow down or apply his brakes in an attempt to avoid the collision.” A jury could therefore find the street sweeper's failure to evade demonstrated a “reckless disregard” for the plaintiff's safety.

The Court of Appeals' decision highlights the difficulty in holding public agencies accountable for the negligent driving of their employees. While it is not impossible to win such cases, they do require an experienced hand. If you need the services of a qualified New York accident attorney, contact our offices right away.