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Who is Liable for Florida Emergency Vehicle Accidents?

Florida emergency vehicle accidentsWe all know that when an emergency vehicle approaches with its lights flashing and sirens blaring, other motorists should make way – and fast. But what if you cannot move quickly enough? What if you did not see the lights or hear the sirens before it was too late? What if there were no lights or sirens activated at all?  As our South Florida injury lawyers can explain, state law allows for legal accountability in Florida emergency vehicle accidents in some circumstances. Proving it will likely require an extensive investigation, expert witness testimony, and an experienced legal team.

According to the National Safety Council, emergency vehicle crashes – those involving police vehicles, ambulances or fire trucks – caused 168 U.S. deaths in 2018. Of those, less than half (48 percent) occurred while the authorized vehicles’ lights and sirens were in use. Most of those who died were either an occupant of non-emergency vehicles or pedestrians (69%). Police vehicles were involved in the most fatal crashes (64%), followed by ambulances (28%), and then fire trucks (8%). These numbers provide some insight but do not give us a full picture as non-fatal crashes are not included.

F.S. 316.072 allows emergency vehicle operators some leeway when it comes to traffic rules. For example, they can proceed past a red light or through a stop sign – but only after slowing down as necessary for safe operation. They can exceed the maximum speed limit – so long as the driver does not endanger life or property. They can also disregard regulations governing direction, movement, or turning – but only so long as life or property is not endangered. Many departments also have written policies that outline the caution their employees should use when responding to an emergency.

What the law makes clear is that while these first responders are tasked with critically important duties for which seconds count, they do not have free reign to drive recklessly on our roads or needlessly endanger others.

As our South Florida car accident attorneys can explain, there are avenues of legal recourse for those injured in Florida emergency vehicle accidents, but these cases can get complex quickly.

Causes of Ambulance Accidents, Police Car Accidents, and Fire Truck Accidents

South Florida emergency vehicle crashes occur for many reasons. Extensive research has concluded some of the primary contributing factors are:

  • Lack of mandated standardized training and evaluation procedures for emergency vehicle drivers.
  • Multiple stress factors within the operating environment.
  • Minimal on-the-job driving experience.

Still, not every crash involving an emergency vehicle will be ripe for a compensation claim – even if it resulted in injuries. It should be noted that Florida’s “Move Over Law” requires the driver of every vehicle approached by an authorized emergency vehicle traveling en route to an existing emergency (as evidenced by visible and audible signals) to yield the right of way, immediately pull over as close as possible to the curb, clear the intersection and remain stopped until the emergency vehicle passes. But even if you are hit by an emergency vehicle and were partially at-fault, you might still be entitled to some measure of compensation for your injuries (thanks to Florida’s comparative fault law). It is important to discuss the facts of your case and its viability with a local and experienced injury lawyer before deciding how to proceed.

Claims for Florida Emergency Vehicle Accidents

When outlining the rights and responsibilities of first responder drivers, Florida statutes specifically use phrases like “as necessary for safe operation” and “so long as the driver does not endanger life or property.” Those provisions are important in these types of crash cases.

Several settlements and verdicts against cities and private companies for Florida emergency vehicle accidents have been reported in recent years. Among those:

  • A $95,000 settlement to a woman who was seriously injured in Largo when she was struck by a Clearwater Police vehicle during a 2018 car chase. The 20-year-old plaintiff suffered a broken wrist for which she had to undergo surgery. Tampa Bay Newspapers reported a detective and two other officers were temporarily suspended for engaging in an unsanctioned chase which ended with the crash and the plaintiff’s injuries. Like many departments, police chases are recognized as dangerous and only allowed in certain circumstances, such as in pursuit of a suspected violent felon. In this case, the officers were reportedly pursuing a suspected car thief at high speeds when the intersection crash occurred.
  • A $200,000 settlement paid last year to the family of an 18-year-old woman who was killed when a Coconut Creek police officer pursued a car in which she was a passenger. The officer reportedly had approached the car while it was parked and smelled alcohol and marijuana. The driver fled, and the officer – later joined by another – chased the vehicle at speeds of up to 90 mph. Five minutes after the officers were ordered by a supervisor to stop chasing the suspect, the fatal crash occurred. $200,000 is the maximum per-person amount a state government agency can pay per F.S. 768.28, Florida’s waiver of sovereign immunity in tort actions.

Additionally, several Fort Myers ambulance crashes have been reported in recent years, though it is not clear how many of those resulted in successful injury claims, settlements or verdicts.

Other states have also held that emergency services and their employees are not always immune from liability for reckless driving. For example, the Illinois Supreme Court recently ruled that a private ambulance company defendant was not immune to the negligence of its driver, who ran a red light and collided with the plaintiff’s vehicle, causing serious injuries. The plaintiff argued that the driver was not responding to an emergency, providing non-emergency medical services to anyone or operating with active lights and sirens at the time of the crash. The defendant argued that state law granted them immunity because the driver was en route to pick up a patient for non-emergency transport. The state supreme court ruled that the law did not extend immunity to the defendant responding to a call for non-emergency transport.

If you are injured in an emergency vehicle crash in the greater South Florida area, our dedicated legal team can help.

Contact our injury attorneys at The Garvin Firm at 800.977.7017 for a free initial consultation.

Additional Resources:

Hernandez v. Lifeline Ambulance, LLC, June 18, 2020, Illinois Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:

How to Recover Damages in a Florida Car Accident With an Uninsured Driver, May 11, 2020, South Florida Injury Lawyer Blog

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