Louisiana Court of Appeals Upholds Finding that Firefighter Was Liable For Accident

The Louisiana Court of Appeals has upheld a verdict finding a firefighter 75% at fault for an accident because the emergency lighting on the vehicle that the firefighter was driving was insufficient to warn other drivers.

The accident occurred on January 27, 2013, as firefighter Troy Odem Guitreau was responding to a medical emergency in Livingston Parish Fire Protection District 2 while driving a vehicle owned by Livingston Parish Fire Protection District 9. He collided with a vehicle driven Nunzio Inzinna, who later sued him, both fire districts and the fire district’s insurer.

While Guitreau testified he activated both emergency lights and siren, several witnesses testified they did not hear a siren. In a bench trial, the judge ruled that to have the benefit of Louisiana’s emergency vehicle statute, La RS 32:24, a vehicle must be utilizing audible warning and/or flashing lights “sufficient to warn motorists” of the approach of the emergency vehicle.

The trial court concluded that “Guitreau’s use of his emergency lights at noon on a clear day was not sufficient to warn motorists of his approach”, and thus he was not eligible for the liability protection available under La RS 32:24. As a result the judge evaluated Guitreau’s fault based upon the ordinary negligence standard, finding him 75% at fault and Inzinna 25% at fault.

Guitreau appealed claiming that La RS 32:24 should apply and he should only have been held liable if he drove with “reckless disregard”. In rejecting his argument the Court of Appeals reasoned as follows:

  • Louisiana Revised Statutes 32:24 states:

A.The driver or rider 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 upon returning from, a fire alarm, may exercise the privileges set forth in this Section, but subject to the conditions herein stated.

B. The driver or rider of an authorized emergency vehicle may do any of the following:

  1. Park or stand, irrespective of the provisions of this Chapter.
  2. Proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down or stopping as may be necessary for safe operation.
  3. Exceed the maximum speed limits so long as he does not endanger life or property.
  4. Disregard regulations governing the direction of movement or turning in specified directions.

C. The exceptions herein granted to an authorized emergency vehicle shall apply only when such vehicle or bicycle is making use of audible or visual signals, including the use of a peace officer cycle rider’s whistle, sufficient to warn motorists of their approach, except that a police vehicle need not be equipped with or display a red light visible from in front of the vehicle.

D. The foregoing provisions shall not relieve the driver or rider of an authorized vehicle from the duty to drive or ride with due regard for the safety of all persons, nor shall such provisions protect the driver or rider from the consequences of his reckless disregard for the safety of others. (Emphasis added.)

  • Mere use of a signal or signals is not enough to show compliance with La. R.S. 32:24(C); there must be a further showing that use of the signal or signals was sufficient to warn motorists” of the approach of the emergency vehicle.
  • Courts have observed that La. R.S. 32:24(C) does not require that both audible and visual signals be given
  • The Louisiana Supreme Court… held that La. R.S. 32:24 sets forth two standards of care, depending upon the circumstances.
  • If an emergency vehicle driver meets the requirements of Sections A, B, and C, then the driver can be held liable only if his actions rise to the level of “reckless disregard” for the safety of others.
  • On the other hand, if the driver’s actions do not meet the prerequisites of Sections A, B, and C, then the driver’s actions are to be assessed under the “due regard” or an ordinary negligence standard.
  • In discussing the two standards, the Louisiana Supreme Court in Lenard explained:
  • “Due care” is synonymous with ordinary negligence.
  • “Reckless disregard,” however, connotes conduct more severe than negligent behavior.
  • “Reckless disregard” is, in effect, “gross negligence.” Gross negligence has been defined by this court as “the want of even slight care and diligence. It is the want of that diligence which even careless men are accustomed to exercise.”
  • “Reckless disregard” or ” gross negligence” is the standard to be applied if the emergency vehicle driver’s actions fit [La. R.S.]. 32:24(A) through [La. R.S.] 32:24(C). Otherwise, the standard is ordinary negligence.
  • We find that the trial court’s findings in the present case were not manifestly erroneous.
  • It is reasonable to conclude that Mr. Guitreau’s use of his emergency lights at noon on a clear day was not sufficient to warn motorists of his approach…
  • Further, because the trial court’s finding that Mr. Guitreau’s emergency lights were insufficient to warn motorists of his approach was not manifestly erroneous, the trial court properly determined that the ” reckless disregard” (or gross negligence”) standard does not apply.
  • Guitreau does not meet the requirements of 32:24(C) and therefore his actions must be assessed under an ordinary negligence standard.

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court on several other issues in the case.  Here is a copy of the decision: Inzinna v. Guitreau_ 2019 La. App. LEXIS 308

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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