Police Liability for Emergency Accidents

This is an old post from 2006 we wrote in 2023 to include

  • settlement and verdicts in police emergency car accident claims,
  • recent police emergency case law and statutes in other jurisdictions, and
  • a sample complaint against the police department in a car accident case.

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland issued an opinion yesterday with Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. Hart.  Here, the plaintiff was injured when a Baltimore City police officer ran a red light. The City of Baltimore’s attorneys contended, however, that the police officer had the right to go through the red light since he had his siren and emergency lights on and he was responding to an emergency.

police liability

Police Emergency Liability

This is a common fact pattern.  A police officer in a hurry or an emergency causes a motor vehicle accident.  In most jurisdictions, and Maryland is no exception, they afford emergency vehicles special status.  This often makes emergency vehicles exempt from the operation of many traffic regulations that relate to traffic signals (like this case), speed limits, and the right of way. So the driver of an emergency vehicle may have an out if an accident is caused by failing to follow the traffic regulations that the rest of us must follow.

The Facts of the Case

This case involves a motor vehicle accident in Baltimore City. A Baltimore City police officer, responding to a call, drove a marked police car through a red traffic signal without stopping and collided with a vehicle driven by Michael Hart.

Hart filed a complaint against the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore and his insurer, Allstate Insurance Company, alleging injuries resulting from the collision. Hart asserted a single claim of negligence against the City and a count against Allstate as his uninsured motorist carrier.

Plaintiff testified at trial that as he approached the intersection, the traffic light turned green.  As he entered the intersection, the police officer’s vehicle struck him.   A witness motorist, who was on Madison Street behind the Plaintiff, agreed that as the vehicles approached the intersection of Madison and Wolfe, the light turned green.  Another witness, who was also on Wolfe Street and behind the police car, confirmed that the officer ran the red light without stopping.  The officer did not recall the color of the light.   I think we all know what happened here.

Motion in Limine

The Baltimore City attorney filed a motion in limine to prevent the accident victim’s attorney (one of which was Irwin Weiss, a well-respected lawyer in Baltimore County) from introducing the Police Department General Order No. 11 which set relatively strict standards for the police officer’s duty of care in going through an intersection like the one at issue in this case (the intersection of Madison and Wolf Streets in Baltimore City). Instead, Baltimore’s lawyer argued that the Maryland Transportation Article § 21-405 applied, which applies less stringent standards.

The trial court not only allowed the admission of the General Order but also allowed the relevant portion to form one of the jury’s instructions. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the injury victim, awarding damages of $46,894.05. The portion of the judgment entered against the City was $20,000 (the maximum recovery by Maryland law because the police officer was responding to an emergency). They entered the rest of the judgment against Allstate Insurance Company under the injury victim’s uninsured/underinsured motorist policy.

The Appeal

The City’s lawyers appealed the trial court’s decision to allow the accident victim’s lawyer to refer to the general order and its use as a jury instruction.  The crux of this appeal was whether a “general order” of the Baltimore City Police Commissioner, dealing with how emergency police vehicles are to be operated on the streets of Baltimore, is admissible in a car accident case involving an emergency police vehicle.

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland found that the Baltimore City Police Commissioner’s instructions to officers on safe driving practices as articulated in Baltimore Police Department General Order No. 11–90 was properly admitted as evidence by the accident victim’s attorney. The court specifically rejected Baltimore’s argument that such standards are not admissible under the Maryland Court of Appeals decision in Richardson v. McGriff, 361 Md. 437 (2000).

In Richardson, they sued a Baltimore City police officer who shot a man who, along with six of his friends, had broken into a vacant apartment in Baltimore City. The court held that introducing police guidelines on the use of deadly force was not appropriate and instead the standard to determine the reasonableness of the police officer’s use of lethal force should be determined by examining the circumstances of the shooting, i.e. the reasonable man test. But the Hart court distinguished the guidelines in Richardson as discretionary and subject to the officer’s judgment at the moment, but the traffic guidelines were more specific guidelines that the police officer should have followed.

Police Causing Car Accidents Is a Real Problem

Police vehicle accidents result in approximately 400-500 deaths each year.  So it is not an insignificant problem and many of these accidents could be prevented if officers followed safety guidelines for maintaining and operating their vehicles.

In emergency situations, such as when a fellow officer is in danger, police are in a hurry and we all get that.  But there are emergencies and there are emergencies and police sometimes do not distinguish between the two.  And officers may become panicked and endanger themselves and others by failing to use warning equipment and driving carelessly. So the challenge is to craft laws that take all of this into account to balance the interests of police and victims like Mr. Hart.

Ultimately, just because emergency vehicles are allowed to break traffic rules doesn’t mean their drivers can drive recklessly and ignore the safety of others. The law still requires them to be careful and responsible. If they cause harm because they were being reckless, they can still be held accountable even though they have an exemption. This means that if a driver knows that their behavior is dangerous and could hurt someone, but chooses to act that way anyway, they can be found to be responsible for the harm that ensues.

What We Get From This Case

The take-home message is the police and other emergency vehicles can escape liability in Maryland only when they are truly in an emergency that required extreme measures.  State and local governments cannot wave an emergency wand and expect relief unless latitude is necessary because of the emergency at hand.

Other Police Emergency Liability Cases

  • Williams v. Shawnee Township (Ohio 2023). Plaintiff appeals a summary judgment in favor of defendants Shawnee Township, Shawnee Township Police Department, and Sergeant Adam Hoehn, and dismissed her claim against them. The case relates to an automobile accident that occurred during a police pursuit of a stolen car. Williams alleges that the defendants acted negligently, but the court found that they were entitled to immunity under R.C. § 2744.01.
  • Estate of Graham v. Lambert (North Carolina 2022). Court found that an officer’s conduct during a motor vehicle pursuit in which a pedestrian was struck and killed did not constitute gross negligence under N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 20-145.  Despite not using his lights or siren and looking at this laptop and its trackpad while driving, the officer was responding to a domestic violence incident involving a firearm. The officer was driving on a seven-lane road surrounded by commercial buildings, in a flat and straight section of the roadway with clear weather and sparse traffic. Although the officer’s vehicle deviated from its lane twice, there was no evidence that he lost control of the vehicle, and he only exceeded the speed limit by 13 miles per hour.
  • Hubbard v. Robinson (New York 2020).  Court found that the driver of an emergency vehicle was not liable for a   crash caused while speeding.  Under the qualified statutory privilege for drivers of authorized emergency vehicles, simply exceeding the posted speed limit while pursuing a suspect cannot be the sole basis for liability for injuries to others under Section 1104(b)(3) of the New York Vehicle and Traffic Law.  This law essentially reads like the Baltimore rule at issue in this case.  When an authorized emergency vehicle, like a police car or ambulance, is responding to an emergency, the driver can break some traffic rules to get there quickly and safely. They can stop, park, go through red lights, and go faster than the speed limit if it’s safe. But they have to use their sirens and flashing lights, and they still have to be careful and avoid hurting anyone.

Verdicts & Settlements in Police Emergency Liability Cases

Below are summaries of verdicts and settlements in prior cases involving incidents in which someone was injured by police engaging in emergency response activities.

Pennsylvania (2022) $2,670,000: a 45-year-old male reportedly suffered injuries including a cervical fracture at C7, C6-C7, and C7-T1 facet injuries and cervical radiculopathy, resulting in permanent scarring and requiring surgery, when he was broadsided by a Philadelphia police cruiser who ran a red light at a busy intersection.

New York (2016) $15,500: A 46-year-old female retail sales clerk alleged that she suffered a torn lateral meniscus in her right knee and chondromalacia of the right patella when the vehicle in which she was a passenger was struck broadside by a police vehicle.

Rhode Island (2016) $1,327,000: Wrongful death case where police officers were allegedly pursuing suspect at high speeds on crowded streets when they struck and killed a pedestrian. A wrongful death case was brought by the estate alleging that the officers recklessly failed to arrest the suspect and then choose to engage in an unauthorized high-speed chase at the risk of public safety.

Missouri (2015) $500,000: 58-year-old female suffered an ankle fracture and a right shoulder strain when the vehicle in which she was a passenger was struck by the defendant’s police cruiser, operated by a nonparty police officer, at a controlled intersection. The plaintiff contended that the officer operated the vehicle in a negligent manner in that he failed to activate emergency lights and sirens, and failed to obey a posted stop sign.

New York (2006) $4,000,000: wrongful death action was brought when a 63-year-old female died after she was struck by an undercover police cruiser as she attempted to cross the roadway on a city street. Plaintiff alleged that the police officer was negligent because he drove at an excessive rate of speed and failed to activate his emergency sirens.

Modified Version of a Complaint Suing a Police Officer in a Car Accident

This is a sketch of a lawsuit against a police officer after a car accident:

Plaintiff, by and through their undersigned attorneys, Ronald V. Miller, Jr. and Miller & Zois, LLC, sues the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore (“City of Baltimore”) and allege as follows:

I.  The Plaintiff brings forth this complaint against the Defendant.

II.  On March 3, 2023, at 1:00 a.m., Plaintiff, while crossing the intersection of  Pratt and Calvert Street in Baltimore, Jane Doe was struck by a police vehicle operated by the Defendant city and driven by the Defendant police officer.

III. The Baltimore City police officer was on duty at the time of the accident and was driving the police vehicle in the course of his routine duties as a police officer and employee of Defendant city. The collision occurred when the police vehicle collided with a vehicle operated by Defendant causing the police vehicle to drive over the curb and strike Plaintiff.

IV.  The Plaintiff alleges that Defendants were negligent, reckless, and operated their motor vehicles without proper regard for the life and safety of the Plaintiff and other pedestrians lawfully using the city streets.

V.  As a direct and proximate result of Defendant’s negligence, Plaintiff sustained injuries that caused physical pain, mental anguish, and permanent partial disability.

VI.  The Plaintiff seeks damages against the Defendants for the medical expenses, loss of earnings, and impairment of earning capacity incurred as a result of Defendant’s negligence.

WHEREFORE, the Plaintiffs demands judgment be entered against  Baltimore City for compensatory damages in the full and just amount of ONE MILLION DOLLARS ($1,000,000.00), plus costs, pre-judgment interest, and post-judgment interest

More on Police Liability

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