When police officers or firefighters respond to an emergency call their use of excessive speed and aggressive driving on the public roadways can, and frequently does, result in injury to innocent bystanders. Indeed, from 2007 through 2011 Ohio ranked seventh in the country in the number of traffic fatalities resulting from police pursuits. Unfortunately for these injured persons, when a police, fire, or other municipal vehicle causes a traffic collision resulting in personal injuries, Ohio law can make it difficult, if not impossible for the injured party to obtain relief for the loss that they have suffered. This is true even for a person’s injuries were directly caused by the negligent driving of the municipality’s fire and police employees.
Under Ohio law, “a political subdivision is [generally] not liable for damages in a civil action for injury, death, or loss to person or property allegedly caused by any act or omission of the political subdivision or an employee of the political subdivision in connection with a governmental or proprietary function.” Ohio Rev. Code § 2744.02(A)(1). This statutory protection of municipalities is referred to as “sovereign immunity” and can act as an absolute bar to bringing a successful action against a city or police department for the acts of its personnel.
However, in traffic collisions caused by municipal employees, there is a specific exception to this general immunity from suit which can allow injured persons to bring a successful action. Persons seeking to sue a police, fire or another municipal employee for negligent operation of a motor vehicle may generally do so, except in cases where a traffic collision results from the police, fire, or rescue personnel’s operation of a motor vehicle in response to an emergency situation. This “emergency exception” prevents injured parties from securing a recovery for their injuries unless the injured person can show that his or her injuries were the result of “willful and wanton misconduct” by the police, fire, or rescue personnel in operating their vehicle. Ohio Rev. Code § 2744.02(B)(1)(a-c).
This “willful and wanton misconduct” standard is a much higher level of proof than regular negligence. While a party who caused injury to another can be found negligent for deviating from the normal and appropriate standard of care, i.e. causing an accident by failing to maintain an assured clear distance from the vehicle in front of him or her, proving wanton misconduct can be a difficult, if not impossible proposition for injured parties in many cases. Ohio courts have determined that to show that the police fire or rescue personnel exhibited wanton misconduct in causing a traffic collision, injured parties must provide evidence that shows:
an entire absence of all care for the safety of others and an indifference to consequences . . . a failure to exercise any care toward [others] when the probability that harm will result from such failure is great, and such probability is known to the actor.
In light of this strict standard, injured parties are required to show that the municipal employee responding to an emergency essentially “didn’t care” what their driving was reckless or that they were likely to cause injury to others. Showing this complete indifference to the safety of the public can be difficult, even in the most compelling cases. In situations where a person has been injured as a result of the actions of police, fire, or rescue, personnel it is critical that the injured person has a skilled attorney who understands the legal challenges of these claims and who will work tirelessly to hold accountable those responsible. If you or a loved one has been injured as a result of the actions of police, fire or rescue personnel, we encourage you to contact The Charles E. Boyk Law Offices, LLC for a free, no obligation consultation so that you can understand your rights and options during this difficult time.