NY Court of Appeals Holds Fire Department Not Liable in Accident Case

The New York Court of Appeals has ruled that a fire department cannot be held liable for the negligence of one of its firefighters through vicarious liability when the driver could not be held liable directly for negligence. The ruling clarifies a contentious issue in New York involving the interpretation of conflicting laws, and is largely viewed as a victory for fire departments.

The case involves an apparatus accident that occurred on June 22, 2012 when a vehicle driven by Courtney Anderson collided with a fire truck driven by a volunteer firefighter with the Commack Fire District, John M. Muilenburg. The accident occurred at an intersection controlled by a traffic light.

According to the decision, Anderson had a green light, but Muilenburg came to a complete stop and proceeded cautiously through the intersection. Nevertheless, Anderson sued the district and Muilenburg.

The trial court dismissed Muilenburg from the suit concluding that under New York law, firefighters have the right to proceed through red lights so long as they proceed cautiously and do not drive recklessly. The court found no evident that Muilenburg driving was reckless.

However, the court refused to dismiss the fire district from the suit based on another law that makes fire districts liable for the negligence of their volunteers. The court concluded the fire district could be held liable if Muilenburg was in fact negligent. That prompted the Commack Fire District to appeal, initially to the appellate division of the New York supreme court, and then on to the NY Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals reversed the lower courts, explaining as follows:

  • In recognition of the unique responsibilities placed on fire truck and other emergency vehicle operators to respond quickly to calls for aid, Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 grants such drivers the “privilege” to proceed past red lights when involved in emergency operations, as long as specified safety precautions are observed and they do not act recklessly.
  • As pertains to volunteer fire companies, General Municipal Law § 205-b makes fire districts vicariously liable “for the negligence of volunteer firefighters” when they operate fire district vehicles in the discharge of their duties.
  • The question presented on this appeal is whether these statutes authorize a claim against a fire district for the “negligence” of a volunteer firefighter when the firefighter’s actions are otherwise privileged and subject to a heightened recklessness standard under Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104.
  • We hold that imposition of vicarious liability for a driver’s negligence in this context would be contrary to legislative intent, this Court’s precedent, and general principles of negligence law and vicarious liability.
  • In enacting [Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104], the Legislature recognized that drivers of emergency vehicles have a “primary obligation to respond quickly to preserve life and property” which can “conflict with the rules and laws that are intended to regulate citizens’ daily conduct,” and, consequently, such drivers should be permitted “to disregard those laws where necessary to carry out their important responsibilities”
  • Considering the text, history, and legislative purpose of the two statutes at issue, we hold that the reckless disregard standard set forth in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 (e) applies when a fire district is alleged to be vicariously liable for conduct that is privileged under that statute.
  • Our conclusion that political subdivisions (fire districts and municipalities) have no vicarious liability for ordinary “negligence” in a driver’s exercise of a Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 privilege is also consistent with the Legislature’s public policy judgments and objectives in enacting that statute.
  • As explained above, the Legislature’s reckless disregard standard avoids judicial second-guessing of difficult and time-pressured decisions and mitigates against the risk that the threat of liability will deter emergency vehicle drivers from taking the types of calculated risks that are occasionally necessary to save lives.
  • These concerns are equally applicable where the vicarious liability of a political subdivision is at issue.

Here is a copy of the decision:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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