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June 17, 2011

Reckless Disregard Standard Only Applies to the Specific Conduct Set Forth in that Statute

Does the reckless disregard standard set forth in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 apply to the driver of an emergency vehicle involved in an emergency operation for any injury-causing conduct? By a narrow vote of 4-3, the Court of Appeals recently held it did not. Rather, the Court determined that the reckless disregard standard only applies when a driver of an emergency vehicle engages in the specific conduct set forth in that statute. It further held that the principles of ordinary negligence govern any other injury-causing conduct of an emergency vehicle driver.

In Kabir v. County of Monroe, 16 N.Y.3d 217 (2011), a patrol deputy officer, after receiving two emergency calls, failed to activate the emergency lights or siren on his vehicle as he was en route responding to an emergency call. After looking at his display screen while driving, he suddenly observed stopped traffic and rear-ended the car in front of him. The driver of the car sued the county and the officer for injuries suffered during the collision.

The Court noted that the statute permits operators of emergency vehicles to "exercise the privileges set forth in this section [1104], but subject to the conditions herein stated" which refers to the specifically enumerated acts listed in the statute. The Court noted, however, that VTL § 1104(e)specifies that "[t]he foregoing provisions shall not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons, nor shall such provisions protect the driver from the consequences of his reckless disregard for the safety of others." Thus, the Court concluded this language cautioned emergency vehicle drivers to operate their vehicles "as safely as possible" in an emergency situation and further holds them answerable for damages, if their reckless exercise of a privilege granted by Section 1104(b) causes personal injuries or property damage. The Court concluded that Section 1104 (e) did not create a reckless disregard standard of care for conduct not specified therein. Rather, because the standard of care for all emergency driving "” even if privileged under Section 1104(b)"” is negligence, that is the standard that applied for acts not specified by Section 1104(b).

The dissenting opinion argued that the holding of the majority interposed a limitation into Section 1104(e) that was "unworkable," incompatible with prior precedent of the Court, and not supported by the language in the statute.

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