County May Be Liable for Fire Truck That Hit Passenger Vehicle

The rules of the road are not the same for all vehicles. Emergency vehicles including fire trucks, police cars and ambulances enjoy certain legal privileges. Under Georgia law, when such vehicles are actually “responding to an emergency call,” they can run red lights or stop signs without stopping. However, emergency vehicles must still “slow down as may be necessary for safe operation” and operators have the same duty “to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons” as any other motorist.

Brown v. DeKalb County

Here is a recent example of how Georgia courts apply the emergency vehicle doctrine. This case arises from a 2011 accident in DeKalb County. A county fire truck collided with another vehicle which had five passengers, including three children. The passengers subsequently sued DeKalb County.

The fire truck was responding to an emergency call. The truck’s red emergency lights were flashing, which the firemen said could be seen at least 500 feet away. But it had been raining heavily that day, and the drivers of both vehicles testified they never saw the other prior to impact. Two firemen riding on the fire truck said they did see the other vehicle, but they had no time to warn the driver.

The parties disagreed as to who hit whom. There was no disagreement the fire truck entered the intersection during a red light. The plaintiffs said the fire truck hit their vehicle. Other witnesses at the scene said the car entered the intersection, with a green light, and hit the fire truck. There was also disagreement over how fast the fire truck was traveling. One of the plaintiffs guessed the fire truck was doing at least 60 miles per hour. The firemen and other witnesses testified the truck “was moving at a slow rate of speed.”

Based on all this evidence, the trial court granted summary judgment to the county. But the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed. In a June 17 opinion, a three-judge panel said the disagreement over the fire truck’s speed was enough to defeat summary judgment. If the fire truck was, as the plaintiff testified, traveling through a red-light intersection at 60 to 70 miles per hour, a jury could conclude the driver failed to engage in “safe operation” and exercise “due regard for the safety of all persons.”

The trial judge apparently disregarded the plaintiff’s testimony regarding the estimated speed of the fire truck because she was a layperson without specialized knowledge. But as the Court of Appeals explained in a footnote to its decision, such lay testimony “is admissible under the new Evidence Code” in Georgia. Here, the plaintiff is allowed to offer her own “estimate of the fire truck’s speed [] based upon her first-hand perception of the impact.” The county is free to challenge the plaintiff’s estimate with its own evidence, as it did with the expert reconstruction report. But it is ultimately for the jury to weigh the credibility of the plaintiff’s testimony.

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