Under Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104, drivers of authorized emergency vehicles engaged in emergency operations enjoy specific privileges. These include the ability to exceed speed limits, proceed past traffic signals and signs, and disregard regulations under certain conditions. However, these privileges come with the obligation to operate the vehicle “with due regard for the safety of all persons.” This means that, even in emergency situations, drivers must avoid reckless actions that could endanger lives or property. If their conduct involves reckless disregard for safety, they can be held liable for resulting injuries or damages.
McLoughlin v. City of Syracuse, 2022 N.Y. Slip Op. 3608 (N.Y. App. Div. 2022) involves a collision between a civilian’s vehicle and a police vehicle operated by Officer Jacob R. Breen from the City of Syracuse Police Department. The civilian initiated legal proceedings seeking damages for injuries sustained in the accident. The defendant, representing Officer Breen, asserted the emergency doctrine affirmative defense, moving for summary judgment to dismiss the complaint. The court’s decision on this motion is the subject of analysis in this blog.
The incident occurred as Officer Breen was responding to a police call regarding an armed man threatening suicide. The plaintiff was injured in a car accident involving the police officer. He filed a lawsuit, alleging negligence, carelessness, and reckless operation of the police vehicle, prompting the defendant to claim the emergency doctrine as a defense.
The primary issue before the court was to ascertain the standard of care applicable to Officer Breen’s conduct—whether it fell under the emergency doctrine, with its privileges and limitations, or if ordinary negligence principles should be applied.
The court affirmed the lower court’s decision, denying the defendant’s motion for summary judgment. It determined that triable issues of fact existed regarding whether Officer Breen’s conduct met the reckless disregard standard associated with emergency vehicles involved in emergency operations or if it should be evaluated under ordinary negligence principles.
The Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 grants certain privileges to drivers of authorized emergency vehicles engaged in emergency operations, such as exceeding speed limits. However, these privileges do not shield the driver from the consequences of reckless disregard for others’ safety. For the reckless disregard standard to apply, the driver’s operation must involve privileged conduct.
In this case, while it was established that Officer Breen was operating a qualifying emergency vehicle and was involved in an emergency operation, the defendant failed to prove, as a matter of law, that Breen’s conduct included privileged actions. The court noted triable issues, particularly concerning Breen’s speed, which could impact the applicable standard of care.
The court also rejected the defendant’s argument that, regardless of the standard applied, they could not be held liable. Even if Breen was neither reckless nor negligent, the plaintiff presented triable issues through an expert affidavit. The expert opined that Breen’s actions, including excessive speed without proper signals, possibly in violation of departmental policies, constituted reckless disregard for safety.
The violation of internal policies, while not determinative, was considered a crucial factor in assessing recklessness. The court concluded that the triable issues of fact concerning reckless disregard also raised issues of ordinary negligence, making summary judgment inappropriate.
The court’s decision underscores the complexity of determining the standard of care in cases involving emergency vehicles. The existence of triable issues regarding Officer Breen’s conduct necessitated a comprehensive evaluation, considering both the emergency doctrine and ordinary negligence principles.
Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 has a significant impact on the plaintiff’s ability to recover damages and defines the standard of care applicable to drivers of authorized emergency vehicles engaged in emergency operations. According to this law, drivers of such vehicles are granted privileges, including the ability to exceed speed limits, provided it does not endanger life or property. However, these privileges come with the condition that the driver must operate the vehicle with due regard for the safety of all persons. If the driver’s reckless disregard for safety causes personal injuries, the driver can be held liable, affecting the amount of money the plaintiff may recover. This standard of care sets the parameters for determining negligence or recklessness in the case.