Section 17001 of the California Vehicle Code provides that a public entity is financially responsible (“liable”) for the injuries to or death of a person or damage to property proximately caused by the careless (“negligent”) or other wrongful act or omission in the operation of any motor vehicle by an employee of the public entity, so long as the employee was acting within the scope of his or her employment at the time of the accident. Accordingly, the drivers of all police, fire, and other emergency vehicles must drive carefully (“exercise due care”) in the operation of their vehicle so as not to cause injury or death to persons or damage to property.
If the driver of the public vehicle is negligent, the public entity that employs him or her can be held liable for all of the resulting damages, including medical expenses, lost wages, and pain and suffering of the victims. The public entity employer may be held financially responsible for the accident even though the driver himself or herself cannot be held liable because of a law granting him or her immunity from liability.
However, section 17004 of the Vehicle Code states that a public employee is not liable for civil damages (is “immune” from liability) on account of injury to or death of any person or damage to property resulting from the operation, in the line of duty, of an authorized emergency vehicle while responding to an emergency call or when in pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law. Section 17004 also relieves the public employee of liability when he or she causes an accident when responding to a fire alarm or other emergency call, but can be held liable for negligent operation of the public vehicle when returning from the fire alarm or other emergency call.
Note, however, that while section 17004 grants immunity only to the public employee that was driving the emergency vehicle, that grant of immunity does not extend to his or her public employer. Thus, a public entity can be held liable for accidents caused by the negligence of its employees when responding to a fire alarm or an emergency call in the line of duty.
Vehicle Code section 21055 relieves drivers of authorized emergency vehicles from a number of traffic laws when the vehicle is responding to an emergency call, while engaged in rescue operations, or while being used in the immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law. The immunity of section 21055 applies only if the driver of the emergency vehicle sounds a siren “as may be reasonably necessary” and the vehicle displays a lighted red light visible from the front as a warning to other drivers and pedestrians. However, section 21055 does not permit drivers of emergency vehicles to drive with impunity from the moment they activate their vehicle’s sirens and flashing lights. The driver must still observe that degree of care imposed by the common law to immunize his or her public entity employer from liability under Vehicle Code section 17001.
When the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle responding to an emergency call activates the vehicle’s siren and flashing red lights, his or her conduct is measured by the standard of care that applies to a reasonable person under similar circumstances, including the emergency. However, if the public employee does not activate the vehicle’s siren and lights, the driver’s conduct is governed by the standard of care that applies to a reasonable person under similar circumstances, but excludes consideration of the emergency circumstances.
Suppose you are injured or a loved one killed when hit by a vehicle that a law enforcement vehicle is pursuing at a high rate of speed. Can you sue the law enforcement agency for your injuries or the death of a loved one? That depends on whether the law enforcement agency has adopted and promulgated a written policy on vehicle pursuits that includes the information set forth in Vehicle Code section 17004.7(c), and whether the policy requires regular and periodic training of its officers on a least an annual basis as required by Vehicle Code section 17004.7. If the public entity has in fact implemented a proper vehicle pursuit policy, then the peace officers and their public entity employer generally are not liable for the injuries, death, or damage that may result from pursuing a fleeing vehicle.
All law enforcement agencies are subject to this law, including local police departments, county sheriffs, state police, and the California Highway Patrol. If the public entity has a written policy on vehicular pursuits that meets the criteria of Vehicle Code section 17004.7, the public entity is immune from suit (that is, it is free from liability) regardless of whether it was the fleeing suspect’s car that caused the injury, death, or damage, or it was a peace officer’s vehicle that was involved in the accident.
Vehicle Code section 17004.7(b)(2) requires that all peace officers of the public agency certify in writing that they have received, read, and understand the pursuit policy. However, the failure of an individual officer to sign a certification cannot be used to impose liability on an independent officer or the public entity that employs him or her.
A fire engine responding to an emergency call with its lights and sirens on generally cannot be held liable for injuries resulting from accidents with other vehicles or pedestrians. However, the fire engine can be held liable for injuries and deaths resulting from its negligent operation while returning to the fire station following the emergency.
Because an emergency vehicle is usually owned by a public entity, if you have been injured by an emergency vehicle, you must file a claim with the appropriate public agency within 6 months of the accident or you will forever lose your right to sue the public entity and/or its employees. The law involving injuries or death arising from collisions with emergency vehicles can be complex, and it is therefore critical that you contact a personal injury law firm with experience handling such claims.