New York’s Highest Court Rules That Emergency Vehicle Operators Can Be Tagged for “Comparative Negligence” When They Sue Others for Car Accidents

This past fall this central New York accident lawyer toured upstate New York State, stopping in Albany, Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo, to lecture other personal injury lawyers about Municipal Law Liability developments (see my prior blog about it) in New York State. One thing I told other personal injury lawyers about was a split in the appellate courts in New York on a municipal law legal issue. To understand the issue, you first have to understand the law in New York regarding emergency vehicle drivers, which include police officers, deputy sheriffs, State troopers, ambulance drivers and others. The law in New York is very protective of such emergency vehicle drivers. New York law wants such drivers to feel that they can perform their emergency driving without worrying too much about getting sued if they cause an auto accident. The relevant statute is New York Vehicle & Traffic Law 1104, which says you can’t sue such drivers if they cause an accident due to mere carelessness or negligence. Their driving has to be a lot worse than that. It says that you can only sue emergency responders for auto collisions when their driving demonstrates a “reckless disregard” for the safety of others.

Now let’s get into the issue that divided New York’s appellate courts. Assume that an emergency responder such as a police officer or ambulance driver collides with another automobile and the emergency driver is injured. Assume the emergency driver believes the accident was the other driver’s fault and sues him for pain and suffering compensation and other losses. Assume further that the other driver, in his defense, says, “hey, the accident was partly your fault too, and so you should only get partial recovery your loses”. That defense is known in the legal world as the “comparative negligence” defense.

The issue that divided the courts in New York was whether, when such a defense is raised, the sued driver has to prove that the emergency responder was merely “negligent” or whether he has to prove that the emergency operator acted with “reckless disregard” for the safety of others. New York’s Third Judicial Department in Ayers v. O’Brien had held that such a driver had to show only “negligence” while the Second and Fourth Judicial Departments had ruled that he had to show that the emergency vehicle operator was “reckless”. This week New York’s highest Court, the Court of Appeals, agreed with the Third Department that only negligence must be shown.

What does this mean for New York’s emergency vehicle operators such as police officers, deputy sheriffs, State troopers and ambulance drivers? It means that if they sue another driver for injuries suffered in a car crash, they can’t claim that their own responsibility for the crash counts only if they were “reckless”. Their mere “negligence” will count against them. Earth shattering news? No. But worthy of a blog post? Sure hope you think so.

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