Vassallo v. Majeski: Accidents Involving Emergency Vehicles

We all respect that public safety workers in the course of their duties must sometimes bend the rules of the road – or break them altogether – when lives are at stake.
In fact, North Carolina’s Emergency Vehicle Law specifically permits emergency drivers to proceed through red lights and stop signs, exceed the maximum limits of speed and disregard regulations governing direction of movement or turning in specified directions. However, those privileges are only allowed when there is an emergency and when responders exercise due care.

Charlotte car accident injury lawyers know that “due care” means if an emergency vehicle driver wishes to travel through a stop light, he or she must first slow down as necessary for safe operation. It means lights and sirens must be flashing in order to adequately warn drivers who may be approaching. It means only speeding to the extent that life or property are not endangered.

In other words, they shouldn’t risk the occurrence of a second emergency while racing to the first.

Sometimes, though, in the heat of the moment, safety takes a back seat. For those who are hurt as a result, establishing liability in these cases is tough – but not impossible. North Carolina has exceptions to sovereign immunity, and in fact, most states have sovereign immunity exceptions for motor vehicle accidents.

Still, in an actual emergency, responders are given a great deal of latitude, and the threshold to prove negligence is higher.

The recent case of Vassallo v. Majeski shows how complex these matters can be.

Here, the Minnesota Supreme Court remanded a claim back to the lower court after ruling in favor of the government.

According to court documents, this case involved a crash that occurred when a sheriff’s deputy was responding to an emergency. The deputy was part of a K-9 unit. Road conditions that day were poor due to a recent snowfall. A call came in alerting to an at-home security alarm system, with a request by local police for K-9 assistance.

Once the deputy was dispatched, he turned on his emergency lights and sirens and proceeded toward the location. As he approached an intersection near his destination, multiple cars had to move or pull over in order to allow him to proceed. He claims he didn’t see anyone moving into or out of the intersection.

As he approached, a radio call came in alerting that the two suspects were running on foot. Believing he was close to the suspects and not wanting to alert them, he turned off his emergency lights and sirens as he approached the intersection, traveling about 55 miles-per-hour in a 50-mile-per-hour zone. The light was red.

Another driver, who technically had the right of way, entered the intersection. The deputy tried to avoid a crash, but was unsuccessful. The other driver suffered serious injuries – and has no memory of the crash.

She was appointed a guardian, who brought a lawsuit on her behalf, alleging negligence by the deputy and vicarious liability of his employer, the county.

The district court initially ruled in favor of the deputy, saying that his conduct was protected by official immunity because he was responding to an emergency and his actions were not willful or malicious. Thus, the county was protected by sovereign immunity.

The case was appealed. The appellate court ruled that while the deputy was eligible for immunity, that immunity could be lost if he violated a state statute that indicates emergency vehicle drivers must exercise due care in responding to emergencies. The question was whether the deputy had slowed down as necessary to ensure safety prior to entering the intersection and whether he continued to proceed with caution. The appellate court found he did not, and therefore reversed the lower court’s ruling.

But then the county appealed to the state’s supreme court. The high court sided with the reasoning of the district court, which was that because the deputy’s actions were not willful or malicious, he could not be held liable and therefore, the county could not be held vicariously liable.

While statutes vary from state-to-state, this case shows how difficult these cases can be to win. Still, there are a number of success stories. It’s important for victims in these situations to consult with an experienced personal injury attorney prior to proceeding to determine the viability of a claim.

If you have been injured in a car accident, contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Vassallo v. Majeski, Feb. 12, 2014, Minnesota Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
When Medical Emergencies Cause South Carolina Crashes, Feb. 22, 2014, Charlotte Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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