A WRAL article posted yesterday discussed a collision that occurred Tuesday on Glenwood Ave in Raleigh involving a fire truck and another vehicle. It is not uncommon for emergency vehicles to be involved in a significant number of accidents, since they regularly are required to break the normal “rules of the road” in order to respond to an emergency. Our office handles numerous collisions involving fire trucks, ambulances, school buses, police cars, or other law enforcement personnel. These claims can be extremely complex.
Cites, counties, and state vehicles are typically protected by governmental immunity. Put simply, you cannot sue the government unless the government gives you permission to do so. This can take several different forms.
North Carolina has a statute called the State Tort Claims Act. It essentially gives permission for the state and its agencies to be sued in some capacity in certain situations. For example, a person injured in a collision involving a school bus is allowed to pursue personal injuries, according to the statute, with significant limitations. There is a cap on what can be recovered, and the suit does not go before a judge at a courthouse or a jury, but is heard before the North Carolina Industrial Commission. This is the same Commission that hears worker’s compensation claims.
The statute also provides that if a governmental vehicle is involved in a collision, AND that vehicle is covered by insurance, then the injured person can sue in a normal court, because the city of county has waived their immunity by purchasing insurance. But often, cities and counties try to get around this clause by purchasing insurance that is an umbrella policy (only covering claims above a certain value) or purchasing insurance that contains a clause saying there is no waiver of immunity. Recently, some cities have begun purchasing insurance that only covers medical expenses, and not pain and suffering. In these instances, our jobs get very difficult. Sometimes, it is better to have the city or county in question simply declare itself uninsured in writing, so that we can file an Uninsured Motorist claim against our client’s own insurance.
Another issue is that governmental vehicles performing a proprietary functions are not covered by immunity. A police officer would be considered performing a governmental function if involved in a collision, but what if the city vehicle is laying down cable wire for high speed internet? Is that a governmental function? Or should they be treated just like we would treat a Time Warner Cable van, and subject them to suit in a regular civil court.
The issues become even more complicated if the governmental vehicle is not 100% at fault. For example, a passenger in a vehicle is able to sue his driver in regular civil court, and that driver is then allowed to bring in the government as a co-defendant, despite the fact that the passenger himself would not have been able to do so in the original lawsuit.
If you or a loved one are involved in a collision with a governmental vehicle, it is important to consult with an attorney to discuss how immunities and insurance coverages might apply to your collision.