Given the size of the Asiana Flight 214 crash, it is likely to be in the news for months to come as investigators uncover more evidence and talk to more witnesses. One of the most unexpected stories to emerge from the crash is the discovery that 16-year-old Ye Meng Yuan, one of two victims to die on the scene (a third died later), had been run over by a fire truck. A report in the San Francisco Chronicle on Wednesday revealed that there are many unanswered questions including whether Ye was alive when the truck hit her and how she had gotten to the spot where she was hit. We are watching this and other issues related to the Asiana crash, but the story had our firm thinking about an interesting issue in accident law: What happens when someone (focusing on innocent bystanders, not fleeing suspects) is hit by an emergency vehicle? The law regarding emergency vehicle accidents in California is complex and, while the following is a brief overview, victims should always consult a San Francisco emergency responder crash law firm.
The Basics: Waiver of Sovereign Immunity, Protection for Employees
The starting rule in a suit against a government body is sovereign immunity (i.e. you can’t sue the state without its consent). In this case, California Vehicle Code Sec. 17001 provides the necessary waiver, rendering public entities responsible for injuries or deaths caused by negligent or wrongful acts/omissions by an employee operating a motor vehicle in the scope of the official’s job. However, section 17004 relieves the employee of liability for civil damages when, in the line of duty, the employee operates an authorized emergency vehicle in response to an emergency call, in immediate pursuit of a suspect, or when en route (but, specifically, not when returning from) to a fire alarm or other emergency call.
Together, these provisions mean that when the driver of an emergency vehicle is negligent, the public entity employer itself may be held liable for civil damages, but the driver may not. As in other cases, liability may result in damages for medical costs, lost wage, and the victim’s pain & suffering.
Specific Situations: Vehicle Pursuits, Compliance with Traffic Laws, and Standards of Care
Notably, there is a special provision that applies to vehicle pursuits. Vehicle Code Sec. 17004.7 removes liability for injuries or death caused by an emergency vehicle pursuing a fleeing suspect when the law enforcement agency has a written policy on vehicle pursuits that meets listed requirements. To qualify for the removal of liability, the agency must provide annual training on the vehicle pursuit rules and the officers must sign to certify that they received and read the policy. The immunity applies to claims against the law enforcement agency related to accidents caused by either the pursuing vehicle or the fleeing suspect’s car.
Section 21055 relieves emergency officials of the duty to comply with specified traffic laws when the official is responding to a call and has activated the vehicle’s sirens and flashing lights. Combined with the other code sections, 21055 helps create the standard of care applicable to emergency officials. If sirens and lights are not activated, the official’s conduct is judged by a traditional negligence standard that applies to all vehicle operators and the context of the emergency may not be considered. If the sirens and lights are activated, the vehicle is responding to a call, and other standards are met, the standard changes. In such cases, the standard of care analysis asks what a prudent emergency responder would do in the specific context, including the existence of the emergency in the evaluation. While this is a more lenient standard, the driver still cannot create an unreasonable danger.
Northern California Attorney for Emergency Vehicle Accident Victims
As is demonstrated above, the standards governing these cases are complex. Additionally, suits against emergency agencies require compliance with the detailed procedural rules applicable to all suits against the government, including a tight timeline typically requiring an initial notice filed within six months. All of this means that, even more than in a typical accident case, it is crucial that people injured by emergency vehicles in California hire experienced legal counsel as soon as possible. As a San Francisco emergency vehicle accident lawyer, Attorney Greg Brod can help people injured in these accidents throughout Northern California. Call ASAP to discuss how we can help get you money damages.
See Related Blog Posts:
Complex Cases in San Francisco Injury Law: Officer-Involved Car Accidents
Fatal Single-Vehicle Crash Serves as a Reminder of the Threat of Dangerous Road Conditions