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How the Standard of Reckless Disregard Applies to New York Traffic Accidents

Drivers of authorized emergency vehicles (e.g. police cars and ambulances) and hazard vehicles (that is, vehicles concerned with certain utilities, such as highway maintenance, towing, snow removal, and waste collection) deal with challenges in the performance of their official duties which make it difficult, and perhaps unfair, to hold them to the same standard as operators of an average car on the highway. Because these drivers must engage in high-risk situations to do their jobs, forcing them to avoid risk altogether would compromise the efficiency of their operations and have a negative impact on society.

New York State law decrees that these vehicles, when engaged in their official duties on the highway, must meet a higher “reckless disregard” standard of proof in order to be found legally responsible for damages. Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL) §1103 outlines these rules as they apply to hazard vehicles, while VTL §1104 covers emergency vehicles.

It is important to understand that this higher standard of proof, when applicable, does not free the defendant driver from his or her duty of care to others on the road. The standard is meant to give the driver greater freedom to perform necessary actions. If you or a loved one has been injured by negligent or reckless behavior on the part of a driver of an emergency or hazard vehicle, you deserve the same consideration as any victim of negligence. You may simply need a more complex legal strategy to get it and the right lawyer to implement that strategy.

Need to Know

  • Unlike negligence, reckless disregard generally must be purposeful conduct and cannot result from a momentary lapse in judgment.
  • The defendant driver must be actively engaged in his or her official duties for the reckless disregard standard to apply.
  • Because of a case handled by Block O’Toole & Murphy, New York State allows for greater nuance in how reckless disregard may be applied to hazard vehicles as opposed to emergency vehicles.

In This Article

What is Reckless Disregard?

To prove liability and recover damages under the Reckless Disregard Standard, your legal team must be able to show that the defendant driver willingly and intentionally committed an act of “unreasonable character in disregard of a known and obvious risk that was so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow” (§1103(b)).

Critically, a momentary oversight or lapse in judgement, while it may amount to negligence, does not equal reckless disregard. The offense must have deliberately engaged in the action, with full understanding of its potential to harm others. 

Challenges of Proving Reckless Disregard

Unlike negligence, reckless disregard involves a willing undertaking of actions that are likely to prove dangerous to others on the road. As you can imagine, reckless disregard is a particularly steep standard of proof to meet. Most drivers—particularly drivers committed to public service—do not readily admit, even to themselves, that they willingly disregarded the safety of other people.

Evidence of care or forethought which, in and of itself, might not be sufficient to rule out negligence may be used by the defense to show that a defendant’s conduct was not reckless. To name a typical example, in one case involving a village snowplow that hit a pedestrian while moving in reverse, investigation determined that the operator reversed slowly while “continuously” checking his mirrors but failed to detect the plaintiff. The question of whether the defendant was sufficiently attentive, checking or not checking, might have held some weight in a case based on the negligence standard. For the purposes of the reckless disregard standard, though, it mattered only that he had made a palpable effort to examine his surroundings, demonstrating that his attitude was not a reckless one.

Naturally, this type of thinking holds especially true for emergency vehicles; in one case, a police officer who had slowed to pass through a red light (permitted for emergency vehicles under VTL §1104) and “slammed” on the breaks upon seeing the plaintiff’s vehicle was found not to have acted with reckless disregard, despite colliding with the plaintiff.

When Does the Reckless Disregard Standard Apply?

The reckless disregard standard is only applicable where the defendant driver was actively engaged in the performance of his or her official duties at the time of the accident. In most cases, emergency vehicles must show indicators, such as sirens and flashing lights, when performing the urgent tasks that would trigger the reckless disregard standard of proof under the statute to apply. Police vehicles and bicycles, however, are exceptions to this rule: the reckless disregard standard may still apply to them if they are engaged in their duties, but their visible and audible signals are not in operation.

Block O’Toole & Murphy handled a case which affected the way that the reckless disregard standard is applied in New York State. In Deleon v. New York City Sanitation Department, our client was involved in a collision with an on-duty street sweeper. Our handling attorneys used a provision in effect at the time to argue that a standard of negligence, rather than reckless disregard, should be applied to hazard vehicles such as the street sweeper which were not responding to an emergency.

The case eventually went to New York’s highest court, The New York Court of Appeals, which, while holding firm on the application of the reckless disregard standard, evaluated the defendant’s behavior while considering the fact that he was not responding to an emergency. The defendant admitted that, upon seeing the plaintiff’s vehicle, he did not take basic measures—such as slowing down and applying the brakes—which might have averted the collision. With this in mind, the Appellate court concluded that a reasonable jury might judge the defendant’s conduct to rise to the standard of reckless disregard, arguably modifying the law on how it was applied in this context.

In this case, our firm was able to add nuance to a standard which had previously been applied in a black-and-white way. As will hopefully be easy to understand, behavior that might not be considered reckless in, for example, a high-speed police chase could still be reckless if it occurred under less pressing circumstances. This modification broadened the circumstances under which hazard vehicles could be held liable for reckless disregard, giving more room for factfinders to offer evidence one way or the other.

How to Approach Reckless Disregard

If you were injured by an emergency or hazard vehicle, a good attorney will conduct a careful investigation at the outset of your case, examining and collecting material evidence to determine whether a valid argument can be made that the defendant’s conduct meets or exceeds what the law recognizes as a reckless disregard. Because the vehicles to which this standard applies are generally owned, operated, or authorized by government entities and the utilities they contract, your attorney will likely be able to serve a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to gain access to any private data related to the case that is held by these parties, including surveillance footage from the vehicle itself, should it exist.   This information should also be available later during the case’s discovery phase.

By nature, reckless disregard involves drivers that are employed in pursuits helpful to the community, regardless of whether their behavior in the incident was accordingly noble or beneficial. It will be important to demonstrate to the jury that the victim of an accident involving such vehicles is also a member of the community, and that the rules surrounding reckless disregard were put in place to protect the same public that these vehicles serve, lending their actions particular weight.

As highly experienced personal injury lawyers, the attorneys at Block O’Toole & Murphy tailor their approach to meet the unique needs of each client and have a track record of going the extra mile to help clients make their stories heard. Contact Block O’Toole & Murphy to receive a free legal consultation by calling 212-736-5300, or by filling out our Contact Form.

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