On Monday, December 27th, a Desert Hot Springs police officer was driving to a call when his patrol car hit and killed a 57-year-old Corona man who was crossing a street at mid-block, according to the California Highway Patrol. The police unit did not have its lights and sirens operating at the time, and at this point it is unclear what type of call the officer was on just prior to the incident. The pedestrian, John Howe Jr., died at the scene of the 10:05 p.m. accident along Palm Drive about 30 feet north of Desert View Avenue, according to Riverside County coroner's officials. In a statement from a representative of the Highway Patrol, it appears the 2008 Crown Victoria patrol car was traveling about 45 mph in a 35-mph zone. The pedestrian was described as wearing dark clothes and was not in a cross walk, according to the story reported in the Press Enterprise.
See the full story at www.pe.com/localnews/inland/stories/webhit.5c328ce4.html
In general, most people assume that emergency vehicle operators have the right of way under all circumstances and traffic laws need not be followed. However, under California law, while the operator of an emergency vehicle does have certain immunities, a public entity may nevertheless be held liable when their employees drive in a negligent manner. This is particularly true when the vehicle operator has not activated the lights and sirens on the emergency vehicle.
In California, if the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle is responding to an emergency call and gives the prescribed warnings by red light and siren, a charge of negligence against him may not be predicated on his violation of certain Vehicle Code sections, including the basic speed law. This protection/immunity is found in California Vehicle Code Section 21055. But, if the operator of the emergency vehicle elects not to give the warnings, the contrary is true. When no lights and sirens are used as provided in Section 21055, a common law standard of care is applicable, and the public employee must operate the vehicle just as any reasonably prudent would under the prevailing circumstances, not including the emergency. Simply stated, if the public employee elects not to use the lights and sirens when responding to an emergency call he will treated just as any other driver when determining the issue of negligence.
In the case above, another important principle of negligence comes into play, that involving the alleged statutory violation by the police officer. The Highway Patrol has apparently already determined the officer was driving at a speed (45 miles per hour) greater than the posted limited. This violation of the law creates a rebuttable presumption that the officer was negligent in the operation of the vehicle. This presumption may be rebutted, however, by "proof that...[t]he person violating the statute, ordinance, or regulation did what might reasonably be expected of a person of ordinary prudence, acting under similar circumstances, who desired to comply with the law." (California Evidence Code Section 669)
Even in cases where lights and sirens are used, the law does not permit the police to drive with impunity from the moment they activate their sirens and flashing lights. Instead, the driver, operating his vehicle in the line of duty, must nonetheless drive in such a manner as would not impose upon others an unreasonable risk of harm. In general, the question to be asked is what would a reasonable, prudent emergency driver do under all of the circumstances, including that of the emergency.
Compensation for the victims of emergency vehicle accidents, caused by the operator’s negligence, should be an important concern for all Californians. When a police officer or fireman negligently causes a traffic accident and serious injuries or death, the public entity should be held accountable. An Orange County injury lawyer with experience at handling such cases can make a fair assessment of these claims. Mr. Ralph has more than 19 years of experience handling personal injury cases, including just this type. He can be reached at 714-919-4415 for a FREE CONSULTATION.
Do you believe the law imposing liability on public entities for the negligence of their employees is fair?
- Nothing in this post is intended to suggest the Law Offices of Paul W. Ralph currently represents anyone involved in the news story above. This posting should not be construed as legal advice or an opinion on the merit of any particular matter. A consultation is the best way to obtain an assessment of your potential case.