Recently, a volunteer fire chief from Long Island, NY, was followed to work in a fire-district-owned vehicle about 50 miles from the chief’s home and ambushed by a local reporter asking about his personal use of a department vehicle. On Long Island, most fire departments buy SUVs...
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First, let us take a look at two case studies. Case one involves a volunteer fire chief. The fire department received a call for a motor vehicle accident (MVA) at 2 A.M. The chief responded from home in his personal pickup truck, turning on the warning lights and siren. (The warning devices were supplied by the fire department and owned by the village.) While responding to the MVA, a car crashed into the chief’s pickup truck. The pickup truck sustained $4,600 in damage and the accident was found to be 60% the fault of the civilian driver and 40% the fault of the fire chief. Who pays?
The chief first confronted the fire department and asked it to cover the 40% because the accident occurred while he was acting in his capacity as fire chief. The department told the fire chief to confront the mayor of the village, as he was acting as an agent of the village. The village told the fire chief that it neither owns nor insures the pickup truck. It was decided that because the village owned the lights and siren, it would pay the 40% to repair the chief’s pickup truck and he would not put a claim through his personal insurance. It was further decided that the village would obtain vehicles owned and insured by the village for the fire chief and his two assistant chiefs, an action that occurred as a direct result of this dilemma.
The second case study involves a volunteer assistant fire chief who was responding to a working fire. The assistant chief hit a patch of black ice, crashed into a bridge and did $2,000 worth of damage to his personal van. The assistant chief, not wanting to put a claim into his insurance company as he felt he was acting as an agent of the fire district, went to the district commissioners seeking payment for the repairs. Again, the district did not own or insure the assistant chief’s vehicle, but it was agreed that the district would pay for the repairs out of its general fund. Six months later, however, the district underwent a state audit. The fire district was admonished by the state for paying for repairs to a vehicle that it did not own.
Not being an insurance expert, I reached out to the American Insurance Association and here is the information it provided. A volunteer fire department or municipal motor vehicle insurance policy would cover vehicles owned by the volunteer fire department or municipality. Vehicles owned by firefighters would not likely be included under the basic policy. In this case, the firefighter’s only coverage is the policy he or she has purchased for himself or herself. However, the volunteer fire department or municipality could purchase additional “non-owned vehicle coverage.” This additional protection for the firefighter’s vehicle would be over and above the coverage the firefighter has purchased. That means that the firefighter’s personal auto coverage would pay until the limits of the policy are exhausted. Additional damages owed the injured or their families would be covered by the non-owned vehicle coverage of the fire department or the municipality up to the limits of that policy. If there isn’t any non-owned vehicle coverage, and damages exceed the firefighter’s personal policy, the firefighter could be personally responsible for the damages exceeding his or her policy amount.
To Protect Assets
Because the firefighter may pose more than the ordinary motor vehicle accident risk, he or she should usually carry an amount significantly greater than the minimum coverage required by law. This coverage varies from state to state and is often in the $25,000 per person up to $50,000 bodily injury liability coverage for all victims in any one accident and $10,000 property damage liability. Firefighters with assets to protect should consider buying much more insurance and purchasing a liability “umbrella policy” that will increase limits by $1 million to $5 million, depending on how much additional coverage the firefighter feels he or she needs.
Under New York State insurance law, no points are to be assigned to accidents that occur when: any vehicle is being used in the line of duty, if the operator at the time of the accident was (a) a paid or volunteer member of any police or fire department, first-aid squad or any law enforcement; or (b) performing any other function on behalf of the state, any political subdivision thereof, a public authority, public benefit corporation, or any other governmental agency or instrumentality in a public emergency. Remember, this is New York State insurance law. It would be a good idea to check your state’s insurance laws as they relate to these issues.