Content provided by: Judge Joan Shkane
This is a continuing discussion of Legal Myths and Reality, because those informed are the most successful.
MYTH: Volunteer firefighters are liable for vehicle accidents that occur while they are on duty.
REALITY: Recently, the Court of Appeals, affirmed limited exposure of fire departments that use volunteers and the volunteers who become involved in auto accidents. The case was about a traffic accident occurring ten years ago in Suffolk County. In June 2012 the plaintiff’s car collided with a fire truck that was going to an alarm with emergency lights and siren activated. The volunteer firefighter truck driver said that he stopped briefly at a red light, then drove slowly into the intersection where the plaintiff’s car ran into the fire truck. The car driver sued the fire district and the firefighter driver and argued that the law gives liability to the fire district so the district must pay. However, the district argued that since 1950 the Vehicle and Traffic Law allows drivers of authorized emergency vehicles to drive through red lights and may disregard other specified traffic laws. The law also prevents volunteer firefighters from being personally liable for the operation of a motor vehicle under certain circumstances.
The Court said that the law gives immunity to firefighters from negligence liability. The firefighters’ individual duty is modified provided certain safety precautions are use, and the firefighter driver avoids recklessness. Since in this the case the firefighters satisfied all the condition, they are not liable and neither is the fire district.
Attention to legal myths can be important. They can be a starting point for developing an interest in the law. However, if specific legal issues are important in your life, for instance, regarding custody of children or money payable for any reason, it is wise to consult a lawyer who can advise you on the truth of legal myths. This discussion is not intended to give legal advice on specific cases or to express an opinion on any specific case.