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Can Tennessee Emergency Vehicles Be Held Liable for Accidents That Occur While On Emergency Calls?

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We have all experienced the sudden sound of sirens in the distance and the quickly approaching flashing lights that signal an emergency vehicle making its way to an urgent situation. We are all no doubt familiar with the laws that require us to pull over to the side of the road to allow such vehicles to pass, or to defer to emergency vehicles entering or exiting a traffic intersection. Yet, despite such safety laws, can emergency vehicles be held liable for accidents that may occur while they are urgently trying to reach their destination point? A recent case out of the Court of Appeals in Tennessee suggests that they can.

In Robin G. Jones v. Bradley County, Ms. Jones filed a governmental tort action against Bradley County Fire and Rescue as a result of an accident that she experienced when a Fire and Rescue vehicle was making its way to an emergency call. In July 2012, Ms. Jones was approaching an intersection when a Bradley County Fire and Rescue vehicle received notice of a fire alarm. The Fire and Rescue vehicle immediately turned on its emergency lights and sirens and approached the same intersection as Ms. Jones.  As it entered the intersection, the emergency vehicle approached carefully and looked for oncoming traffic before turning on a red light. At the same time, Ms. Jones, who did not hear or notice the emergency vehicle, was passing through the intersection. The two cars collided, and Ms. Jones was injured.

Shortly thereafter, Ms. Jones filed a claim for negligent operation of a motor vehicle against Bradley County. After a trial, the trial court awarded damages to Ms. Jones. Bradley County appealed, arguing that the trial court should not have apportioned fault to the emergency vehicle because it was entitled to turn on a red light after making use of emergency signals, and that Ms. Jones was solely at fault for the accident because she did not yield to the emergency vehicle as required under Tennessee law.

The appeals court reviewed Tennessee statute 55-8-108, which provides emergency vehicles with traffic privileges, including the ability to travel through a red light in certain circumstances, but it requires that emergency vehicle drivers always drive with due regard for the safety of all persons. Based on all of the evidence presented, the trial court determined that while Ms. Jones should have noticed the emergency vehicle, the Fire and Rescue vehicle also should have noticed Ms. Jones if it was acting with due regard for the safety of all persons. Accordingly, both parties were at fault, and no one single driver was to blame.

The appellate court affirmed, finding that although Ms. Jones should have yielded to the emergency vehicle, the Fire and Rescue vehicle was under a duty to proceed with extreme caution, which was breached when the vehicle quickly turned against the red light. Accordingly, the preponderance of the evidence did not require that Ms. Jones be held solely liable for the injury that occurred.

While the Court of Appeals’ decision did not overturn the presumption that drivers must yield to emergency vehicles or that emergency vehicles are entitled to certain roadway privileges, it did emphasize that emergency vehicles must be prepared to exercise the utmost caution when using such privileges to respond to a fire alarm or emergency call.

If you have recently been the victim of a car crash, knowledgeable auto accident attorney Eric Beasley can help you in determining whether you have a claim for fault under Tennessee’s modified comparative fault system and who might be to blame. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Tennessee Courts Find Presumption of Comparative Fault for Drivers Running a Light, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, January 6, 2016

Tennessee Lawmakers Encourage Automobile Safety Through Increased Seatbelt Fines, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, December 28, 2015

Tennessee Personal Injury Claims Increase Despite Reduction in Auto Accidents, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 15, 2015