We’re often asked two questions related to the use of personally owned vehicles (POVs) in an emergency response if you should get into a crash: 1) Can I be personally liable, and 2) Can my agency be liable for the damages caused by operation of the vehicle?
The answer to both questions is yes, which is why we need to slow down! Vehicle crashes are the single biggest area of risk in EMS operations. The liability from the resulting carnage of a crash in which an emergency vehicle operator is at fault can far exceed the liability associated with negligence claims involving our patient care activities. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation reports show vehicle-related crashes are the second leading cause of firefighter deaths. Of those deaths, over a third involved firefighter personal vehicles.
EMS providers enjoy limited “legal immunities” in the form of Good Samaritan-type laws to protect those who render aid to others in an emergency from getting sued successfully. But in most states, those immunities don’t apply to claims involving the negligent operation of a motor vehicle, whether that’s a company vehicle or a POV. Every state has a law that permits emergency vehicles to exceed posted speed limits or violate normal right of ways, but there are often exceptions that require ambulances to stop at stop signals and to ensure the intersection is clear before proceeding, or there are limitations on how much the speed limit can be exceeded. These laws are very specific to each state and vary significantly.
With respect to volunteers and others responding in their POVs, there are no such “emergency operator privileges” unless the POV can be designated as an emergency vehicle, and very few states do that. Most states have laws that allow volunteer emergency responders to use “blue lights” and other courtesy lights to alert other drivers that you’re responding to a call—and perhaps legally yield the right of way to you—but typically those laws don’t allow for any exceptions to following the rules of the road like any other driver, including adhering to posted speed limits and stopping at stop signals.
A fundamental principle of all these laws governing the operation of emergency vehicles and personal vehicles responding to an emergency is that the operator who exercises any “privileges” that are available under the law must do so only with “due regard to the safety of others.” Excessive speeding and reckless operation of a vehicle can usually be shown to violate this fundamental principle, and can have no good result.
The case law is full of court actions involving individual EMS personnel and firefighters getting sued as well as their agencies from the damages that occur when the emergency responder is either partially or completely at fault. Typically both the driver of the POV and the agency they represent get named in the lawsuit. The victims will go for the so-called “deep pockets” of your agency, but may well go after your own insurance or any personal assets to cover any judgment that may be awarded.
EMS agencies may also argue that the conduct of the responding driver (especially if the driver is operating a POV) was so reckless so as to take the conduct outside of the normal “course and scope of employment,” which can leave the responder legally “high and dry,” left to defend himself without the support of his/her EMS agency. Criminal sanctions are a real possibility against the individual driver, especially if a death occurs and the cause is shown to be the responder’s negligent operation of the POV.
EMS agencies and their members must pay particular attention to this greatest area of risk. Agencies should have clear policies that parallel the vehicle code and leave no question in the mind of the emergency vehicle operator as to what’s expected. Some departments have a mandatory policy that even though the law may permit going through a stop signal, the department policy doesn’t allow it. That’s a wise policy. Individuals who respond in their POVs must not let adrenaline and excitement get the best of them. Putting yourself and others at risk when responding recklessly, put simply, should never happen. And we now know the clinical research clearly shows that only in a few rare instances does rapid response time make a significant difference in the outcome of the patient.
The days of racing to the scene without regard to the potential carnage that can be caused is no longer tolerated by juries. Remember this phrase: “If you arrive two minutes late, no one will notice; if you arrive two minutes early and kill someone in the process of getting there, no one will ever forget!”