A Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department officer was minorly injured in a car accident tonight. According to authorities, the police officer was on duty and driving an unmarked police car on the Billy Graham Parkway just after 7:30 p.m. when another vehicle drove across the median and hit the driver’s side door. The police officer was transported to Carolinas Medical Center and is expected to be okay.
There is no indication that the police officer was doing anything wrong at the time of the accident, but this raises the issue of what happens when an emergency vehicle driver is injured in an accident caused by the negligence of another. If the emergency vehicle driver tried to recover damages for injuries suffered from the driver of the other car, the other driver might consider raising the defense of contributory negligence. In most states, a plaintiff’s negligence can reduce the damages received, but North Carolina is one of the few states that follows the doctrine of contributory negligence. Under that doctrine, a plaintiff’s contributory negligence can act as a complete bar to his recovery of damages.
Let’s look at a hypothetical involving a car accident which occurred when a defendant’s car pulled out into the street in front of a plaintiff’s car. The plaintiff suffered injuries in the accident and brought a claim against the defendant to recover damages. However, the defendant raised the defense of contributory negligence because at the time of the accident, the plaintiff was travelling above the speed limit and travelling above the speed limit is negligence per se. The plaintiff’s contributory negligence can completely bar the plaintiff from recovering any damages, even if it is determined that the defendant is also negligent.
However, let’s now suppose that the car accident occurred when the defendant’s car pulled out into the street in front of a police car. Just as above, the police officer suffered injuries in the accident and brought a claim to recover damages. However, this time when the defendant attempts to raise the defense of the plaintiff’s contributory negligence because the police officer was travelling above the speed limit, the police officer’s speeding is not necessarily negligence per se.
North Carolina statute exempts certain emergency vehicles from compliance with the speed limits. G.S. 20-145 states that
The speed limitations set forth in this Article shall not apply to vehicles when operated with due regard for safety under the direction of the police in the chase or apprehension of violators of the law or of persons charged with or suspected of any such violation, nor to fire department or fire patrol vehicles when traveling in response to a fire alarm, nor to public or private ambulances and rescue squad emergency service vehicles when traveling in emergencies, nor to vehicles operated by county fire marshals and civil preparedness coordinators when traveling in the performances of their duties, nor to any of the following when either operated by a law enforcement officer in the chase or apprehension of violators of the law or of persons charged with or suspected of any such violation, when traveling in response to a fire alarm, or for other emergency response purposes: (i) a vehicle operated by the Division of Marine Fisheries or the Division of Parks and Recreation of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources or (ii) a vehicle operated by the North Carolina Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. This exemption shall not, however, protect the driver of any such vehicle from the consequence of a reckless disregard of the safety of others.
The North Carolina Supreme Court held that this exemption does not apply only to police vehicles involved in a chase but also to police vehicles responding to a distress call from another officer. (Jones v. City of Durham 2005) In Jones, an officer was travelling between 45 and 60 mph, in a 35 mph zone and hit a pedestrian crossing the street. The pedestrian brought a claim for damages against the City of Durham, and the defendant argued that the police officer was not negligent pursuant to G.S. 20-145.
In examining the statute, the Court noted that
In enacting this statutory exemption to our motor vehicle speed limits, it was clearly the intent of the legislature to extend speed limit exemptions beyond mere police pursuits, to include all emergency service vehicles, including police and even "civil preparedness coordinators," "when traveling in emergencies ... in the performances of their duties."
In Jones, the officer was responding to a distress call from a fellow officer whose voice was “noticeably shaky” and who was in a “dangerous situation” at a location known to other officers as “the location of a past domestic disturbance involving weapons.” The Court concluded that these circumstances justified the officer’s urgent response and increased speed.
Therefore, if the officer in our hypothetical was “in the chase or apprehension of violators of the law” or was responding to a distress call, his increased speed would be justified and would not be contributorily negligent per se. However, if the officer was not involved in a chase or responding to a distress call, his behavior would not be exempted under the statute and could constitute contributory negligence.
Even if the officer was involved in a chase or responding to a distress call, he must still exercise some care. The North Carolina Supreme Court has explained that “the standard of negligence by which a law enforcement officer must be judged when acting within N.C.G.S. § 20-145 is that of "gross negligence" as to the speed and operation of his vehicle,” which it equated to situations “where the responder recklessly disregards the safety of others.” There are various factors which must be analyzed when making the determination of whether an officer’s conduct rises to gross negligence. However, the North Carolina Court of Appeals noted in 2013 that “North Carolina's standard of gross negligence, with regard to police pursuits, is very high and rarely met” and, “we can find no case where this Court or our Supreme Court has found that gross negligence existed.” (Greene v. City of Greenville)
If you have been injured in a car accident, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450, to discuss your options.