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"Emergency Operation" Law Under Microscope After Crash

As it turns out, police cars and fire trucks can't flaunt the rules and drive any way they want - - or at least that is the direction the law seems to be moving in. A recent Brooklyn car crash offers the trial lawyers at Block O'Toole & Murphy a chance to explain the laws that apply to crashes with "emergency vehicles."

On Wednesday, May 4, 2016, at around 6:45 a.m., two police officers and a civilian suffered injuries as the result of an automobile crash when a marked NYPD SUV collided with a red Volvo at the corner of Bedford Avenue and Farragut Road in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.


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According to The New York Daily News, the driver of the Volvo had a suspended license. While many of the facts underlying the car accident remain unclear, this accident comes at an interesting time, as the state of the law as it pertains to emergency vehicles and highway workers appears to be evolving.

It is well settled that authorized emergency vehicles "when involved in an emergency operation," and vehicles "actually engaged in work on a highway," are entitled to a different standard of care. Ordinary cases require proof that a driver failed to act reasonably. In the context of an emergency vehicle, like an ambulance or police car, a crash victim must prove that the driver of the emergency vehicle exercised a reckless disregard, rather than ordinary negligence.

In the past, the reckless standard was all but the death knell to a Plaintiff's case. Accordingly, litigants, and in turn the Courts, primarily focused on whether or not a Defendant's conduct was covered under the relevant statutes. However, in recent decisions, New York Courts have seemingly been redefining and expanding what constitutes "reckless" conduct. For example, in Deleon v NY City Sanitation Dept., 25 NY3d 1102 [2015], a case handled by David Scher, Stephen Murphy and Christina Mark of Block O'Toole & Murphy, the Court of Appeals, New York State's highest court, held that there was a question of fact as to whether or not a street sweeper that rear-ended another vehicle during the course of its work on a highway was acting recklessly. The court wrote that "unlike the majority of our reckless disregard cases, the driver of a street sweeper was not responding to an emergency, but instead was operating a street sweeper during the ordinary course of his duties."

The Court held that if the driver of the street sweeper could, but failed to, take evasive action to avoid a forceful collision, a reasonable jury could find that this conduct rises to the reckless standard. Additionally, in Dejean v Lawton, 136 AD3d 859, 860 [2nd Dept 2016], a livery cab driver was parked on the shoulder of a traffic circle near an exit ramp off the Belt Parkway in Brooklyn when his vehicle was struck by a snow plow. The Appellate Division, Second Department, held "there are material questions of fact with regard to the existence of a stop sign at the bottom of the exit ramp and whether [the snow plow driver] honked his horn so as to alert the plaintiff to move his vehicle. [The snow plow driver] testified at his deposition that he did not stop before entering the traffic circle. The record reflects that, given the plaintiff's presence on the shoulder and the heavy traffic in the traffic circle, a factfinder could conclude that [the snow plow driver] should have stopped and that his failure to do so constituted reckless conduct."

Finally, in Foster v Suffolk County Police Dept., 2016 NY Slip Op 01639 [2nd Dept 2016], a police officer, after receiving a radio dispatch concerning the attempted sale of allegedly stolen landscaping equipment, responded to the corner of Mt. McKinley Avenue and Granny Road in the Village of Farmingville. When he arrived at the scene, the officer spoke with the suspect, who, against the officer's orders, got into his car and fled. The officer pursued the suspect at high speeds, with lights and sirens on, through a residential neighborhood. Ultimately, the suspect, with the officer following him, drove through a red light and collided with another vehicle. The driver of the struck vehicle died as a result of the injuries sustained in the accident. The Appellate Division, Second Department, held that it could not determine as a matter of law whether or not the officer had acted recklessly, and left the question for a jury to decide.

Accordingly, the New York State Courts appear to be trending toward a more lenient view of the reckless standard. This is a major shift from prior jurisprudence. While all of the facts of the accident in Ditmas Park are yet to be uncovered, from a legal perspective, the car crash victim in the red Volvo may be in a better position today, legally, than ever before.

Block O'Toole & Murphy is a law firm that prides itself on getting the best results for their clients. The firm has recovered nearly one-billion dollars in verdicts and settlements on behalf of their clients. You can learn more about the firm or receive a free consultation by calling 212.736.5300.