Court of Appeals Broadens Ability of Persons To Recover for Injuries Caused by Negligently Operated Emergency Vehicles

A bit of a chill swept through the plaintiffs bar in 1994 when the Court of Appeals, New Yorks highest court, held that persons injured in motor vehicle accidents could not recover damages for injuries caused by municipal motor vehicles responding to an emergency responsible for the damages unless it could be proven that the driver a showing of reckless disregard for the safety of others, a much higher standard than the usual negligence. The court’s interpretation in Saarinen v. Kerr, 84 N.Y.2d 494 of section 1104 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law (“VTL”) caused attorneys to give great pause to take on such cases. The courts dismissed many lawsuits that were brought where the conduct complained of seemed egregious. But some relief came last month in Kabir v. County of Monroe, 2011 WL 534047 (February 17, 2011). With an exemplary application of principles of statutory interpretation, the Court of Appeals in Kabir held that Saarinen and its progeny had applied VTL 1104 too broadly. In Kabir, the court explained that the reckless disregard language of subsection (e) of 1104 applies not to any conduct by a driver of an authorized emergency vehicle involved in an emergency operation, but applies only to the type of conduct set forth in subsection (b) of that section. Specifically, VTL 1104(b) sets forth the following privileges: 1. Stop, stand or park irrespective of the provisions of this title [VII]; 2. Proceed past a steady red signal, a flashing red signal or a stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation; 3. Exceed the maximum speed limits so long as he does not endanger life or property; 4. Disregard regulations governing directions of movement or turning in specified directions. VTL 1104(e) states: The foregoing provisions shall not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons, nor shall such provisions protect the driver from the consequences of his reckless disregard for the safety of others. Thus now under the law, unless the motor vehicle is at the time of the accident engaged in at least one of the enumerated privileges, civil liability can be imposed if the operator of that motor vehicle showed a lack of due care under the circumstances – the showing typically associated with ordinary negligence claims. The evidence is not required that the actor has intentionally done an act of an unreasonable character in disregard of a known or obvious risk that was so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow and has done so with conscious indifference to the outcome. The lessons of Kabir that seemingly well-established case law is engraved in stone and that statutes cannot be read too carefully when it comes to interpreting them are important for attorneys. But more significant is the fact that more people injured by negligently operated motor vehicles responding to an emergency will have legal recourse and not be forced to suffer without receiving just compensation for their suffering.

The lawyers at Levine & Slavit have decades of experience handling personal injury claims including those involving auto accidents. For over 50 years spanning 3 generations, we have obtained results for satisfied clients. We have offices in Manhattan and Long Island, handling cases in New York City, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and surrounding areas. If you or someone close to you has been injured in a motor vehicle accident, contact the personal injury lawyers at Levine & Slavit for their help. To learn more, watch our videos.

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