Sirens, Flashers and Car Crashes

I had the privilege of trying a case with a skilled and hard-working local trial attorney, Flossie Weil, in late 2014. The Court of Appeals recently affirmed the favorable verdict.

The case of Jones, et al. v. Bradley County involved personal injury claims resulting from a motor vehicle crash between a responding emergency vehicle and another motorist, Ms. Jones. The emergency vehicle approached an intersection on a red light. The emergency responder testified that had his flashers and sirens on as he approached the red light. He further testified that he "eased into [the other driver's] lane of traffic" without being able to determine whether or not the lane was clear. It turned out that the lane wasn't clear and he struck Ms. Jones’s vehicle, resulting in serious injuries to Ms. Jones.
Since the emergency responder was working at the time of the accident for the County, the suit was filed as a permissible claim under Tennessee's version of the Governmental Tort Liability Act. The case was tried over four days and resulted in a verdict in favor of Ms. Jones. The trial court, determined that the emergency responder was 60% at fault in causing the accident, notwithstanding his use of flashers and sirens. The court of appeals agreed and affirmed the judgment award in favor of Ms. Jones.
This case is illustrative for a few reasons. First, the mere use of flashers and sirens by an emergency vehicle does not remove the need for that driver to still use reasonable care. In this case, the driver's failure to clear all the lanes of travel before entering the intersection was one shortcoming. Second, the Government Tort Liability Act does not exist to prevent a person injured by an emergency vehicle, as here, to be left without recourse. Rather, these laws try to strike a balance between public and private interests. In Ms. Jones' case, her interests were protected as shown by the resulting favorable verdict. Third, establishing a theme is a crucial component to any trial. In this case, the theme of "he took a chance" carried through at trial and into the court of appeals, which cited to the emergency responder's admission that he did, in fact, “take a chance,” as the court went on to ultimately uphold Ms. Jones’ verdict.