Deputy Sheriff Responding to Call With Flashing Lights Could Still Be Liable for Crash

Deputy Sheriff Responding to Call With Flashing Lights Could Still Be Liable for Crash

A law enforcement officer driving his or her official vehicle must sometimes violate traffic regulations, such as stop signs, traffic lights, and speed limits, to pursue a suspected lawbreaker, or to drive as fast as possible to the scene of a serious crime or accident.

The officer is required to weigh the necessity of the high-risk driving against the risk to civilians.

A recent case involved a speeding sheriff’s deputy, who crashed into a driver emerging into his path from a residential neighborhood, causing both the deputy and the driver to be injured.

North Carolina General Statute sections 20-145 allows police officers and other first responders to exceed the speed limit without penalty or liability in certain situations:

  • Chase or apprehension of violators of the law;
  • Apprehension of suspects in such violations;
  • Response to a fire alarm;
  • Medical emergencies.

The statute has limitations, however. Specifically, the law mandates that emergency response vehicles be operated with due regard for safety.

A recent case, Truhan v Walston et al., No. COA14-43, decided by the North Carolina Court of Appeals on August 5, 2014, illustrates the balance of emergency response with public safety.

Plaintiff Daniel Truhan had been a Wayne County deputy sheriff for just under three years. He spent his days serving warrants. He rarely responded to calls, and only if no patrol officer was available. He was at a Kangaroo Express when he overheard a radio call from the Highway Patrol to the Sheriff’s Office of a two-vehicle accident with no injuries. There was no trooper immediately available, but the situation needed traffic control.

Deputy Truhan overheard the call, responded that he was nearby and available, and raced in his patrol car south on Highway 117 at a speed of approximately 85 to 100 miles per hour, in a 35-45 mile per hour zone. He activated his blue lights but not his siren.

In less than two minutes, he crashed into a car being driven by defendant Susan Walston. She had left her house on Woodview Drive that morning, driving conservatively, stopping at stop signs and intersections, and had seen no vehicle when she entered the southbound lane of Highway 117. It was only as she entered the highway that she noticed the flashing blue lights and was immediately hit by the plaintiff’s patrol car.

Deputy Truhan filed suit, claiming that the Ms. Walston was negligent for pulling in front of him. He also sued the driver’s husband under the “Family Purpose Doctrine.” The Walstons countersued, claiming the deputy was guilty of gross negligence and should be held liable.

The trial court granted summary judgment for the plaintiff deputy. The defendants filed an appeal, asking the Court of Appeals to find that the deputy’s driving constituted gross negligence, which would remove the emergency exemption and governmental immunity as relevant factors.

The Court of Appeals evaluated whether the deputy’s driving constituted gross negligence, considering the reason for the pursuit, the probability of injury to the public due to the pursuit, and the officer’s conduct during the pursuit. The Court evaluated all the evidence the trial court considered and found that a jury could find that:

  1. The plaintiff was responding to a minor traffic accident with no injuries, where only traffic management had been requested;
  2. Against department policy, he initiated emergency response driving with no justification;
  3. He turned on his blue lights, but no siren, also against department policy;
  4. He was speeding, at close to 100 miles per hour in a 35-45 mile per hour zone;
  5. He was a warrant officer, inexperienced with high-speed driving;
  6. He had no high-speed driver training beyond his basic law enforcement training;
  7. He sped past a school, without knowing whether it was in session with children present;
  8. He also sped past a fire station and an Interstate exit before the crash;
  9. Due to his speed, he either did not see the defendant or did not see her in time to avoid the collision;
  10. He did not see the defendant because he was coming around a blind curve or not paying proper attention;
  11. He was traveling at 95 miles per hour, just before the collision, when he first tried to brake;
  12. This was the second auto accident the plaintiff had been involved in within a year; and
  13. The accident would probably not have occurred if the plaintiff had been driving at a speed less than 75 miles per hour, with even less likelihood if he had been practicing “routine driving,” which was all the situation required.

The Court of Appeals found a genuine issue of fact that could permit a jury to find that the deputy’s driving in response to the emergency call constituted gross negligence, removing the emergency response and governmental immunity exemptions.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s summary judgment for the plaintiff and remanded the case back to the trial court.

If you or a family member has been injured in a traffic accident, even if the other driver was an emergency responder, you may have a cause of action for negligence. Contact the Tatum Law Firm today at (704) 307-4350 for a free consultation.