§49.4 Duty of Emergency Vehicle Operators

The Case: Wright v. City of Knoxville , 898 S.W.2d 177 (Tenn. 1995).

The Basic Facts: A passenger in a vehicle driven by Anderson was injured in a collision with a police car. The passenger sued Anderson and the police officer's employer.

The Bottom Line:

  • "The Court of Appeals based its holding on three statutes. The first, [Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-108], concerns the rights of emergency vehicles to deviate from basic traffic laws. That section provides, in pertinent part:
    (a) The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle, when responding to an emergency call, or when in the pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law, or when responding to but not returning from a fire alarm, may exercise the privileges set forth in this section, but subject to the conditions herein stated.

    (b) The driver of the emergency vehicle may:

    (2) Proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation;

    (4) Disregard regulations governing direction of movement or turning in specified directions.

    (c) The exemptions herein granted to an authorized emergency vehicle shall apply only when such vehicle is making use of audible and visual signals meeting the requirements of the applicable laws of this state ...

    (d) The foregoing provisions shall not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons, nor shall such provisions protect the driver from the consequences of the driver's own reckless disregard for the safety of others."
    898 S.W.2d at 179.
  • "After citing § 55-8-108, the Court of Appeals noted that, in accordance with subsection (c), Officer Matlock had turned on her siren and blue lights before driving in the westbound lane of traffic; the Court also noted that the officer executed this undisputedly legal maneuver at a relatively low rate of speed, in accordance with the mandate of subsection (b)(2). The Court concluded from this that Officer Matlock did not breach the duty of due care enunciated in subsection (d)." Id.

  • "Rather, the Court held that Brian Anderson's actions were the sole proximate cause of the accident; and it relied upon two statutes for this holding. The first, Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-132, concerns the duty of motorists to yield to emergency vehicles. That statute provides, in pertinent part:
    (a) Upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle making use of audible and visual signals meeting the requirements of the applicable laws of this state, or of a police vehicle properly and lawfully making use of an audible signal only:

    (1) The driver of every other vehicle shall yield the right-of-way and shall immediately drive to a position parallel to, and as close as possible to, the right-hand edge or curb of the roadway clear of any intersection and shall stop and remain in such position until the authorized emergency vehicle has passed ..."
    Id . at 179-80.
  • "Although we agree with the trial court's judgment regarding the presence of negligence on the part of both parties, we cannot agree with the specific percentages of fault that it allocated to the parties. In its memorandum opinion, the trial court referred repeatedly to the emergency vehicle operator's 'high degree of responsibility' to avoid injuring the public. While these operators clearly have a statutory duty to exercise due care in the course of emergency runs, see § 55-8-108(d), this duty is equal to that imposed upon the average motorist to exercise due care in operating their automobile. In light of the equivalence of the parties' respective duties, we find that the allocation of seventy-five percent (75%) of the fault to Officer Matlock is unwarranted. Brian Anderson did in fact breach his statutory duty to yield to an emergency vehicle. Also, Anderson's failure to execute the left turn in accordance with the dictates of § 55-8-140(2) certainly contributed greatly to the accident. Although this statute is hardly a model of clarity, it is obvious that the statute imposes upon motorists the duty to execute left turns as close to the center lines of the respective roadways as possible in order to maximize visibility. Had Anderson not pursued such a diagonal path, but instead driven more toward the center of the intersection, the parties' visibility would have been greatly increased. The collision might have been avoided; or, at the very least, the impact lessened." Id. at 180-81.

After an accident, many injury victims and their families want more information on the accident and their legal rights. Consequently, many of them have found their way to these pages. While we are happy you are here, please understand Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law was written to be a quick, invaluable reference for Tennessee tort lawyers. While the book provides the leading case for more than 300 tort law subjects and thousands of related case citations, it is not a substitute for personalized legal advice from a qualified lawyer.

Rather than researching these legal issues alone, we urge you to contact one of our award-winning lawyers who can sit down with you, review your case, answer your questions and clearly explain your rights and your options in a no-cost, no-obligation consultation. Our experienced attorneys handle all personal injury and wrongful death cases on a contingency basis, so we only get paid if we win. If for any reason you are unable to come to our office, we will gladly come to you.

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The foregoing is an excerpt from Day on Torts: Leading Cases in Tennessee Tort Law, published by John A. Day, Civil Trial Specialist, Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers, recipient of Best Lawyers in America recognition, Martindale-Hubbell AV® Preeminent™ rated attorney, and Top 100 Tennessee Mid-South Super Lawyers designee. Read John’s full bio here.

To order a copy of the book, visit www.dayontortsbook.com. John also blogs regularly on key issues for tort lawyers. To subscribe to the Day on Torts blog, visit www.dayontorts.com.

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