Traffic Fatalities Lead To Firefighter Indictment

The chief prosecutor of Prince Georges County, MD, has authorized the filing of criminal charges against the driver of a fire engine that struck a car, killing a woman and her 4-year-old son. On May 4, 1997, at about noon, the engine was responding to an emergency call at a construction site. It allegedly failed to slow as it approached the intersection where it hit the car. The call turned out to be a false alarm.

Because of the fatalities, the incident received considerable local publicity and led the prosecutor to give attention to the case. The firefighter driving the apparatus faces misdemeanor charges of negligent driving, failing to control speed to avoid a collision and operating at a speed greater than reasonable. Notably, he was not charged with the more serious offenses of excessive or reckless driving. Nor was he charged under Maryland's vehicular homicide law. He will have the choice of admitting guilt and paying a fine, or contesting the charges in court. The charges carry a maximum fine of up to $500.

What makes the Maryland case unusual is that it is a criminal, not civil, action. There are numerous reported civil cases of negligence lawsuits resulting from traffic crashes involving emergency vehicles but criminal cases are much less common. While it is unusual for criminal charges to be filed against the operator of any emergency vehicle, State's Attorney Jack Johnson said, "Public policy requires that firefighters and other emergency vehicle operators respond to emergency calls in a safe and prudent manner so as not to unreasonably jeopardize the lives of innocent citizens."

The law gives emergency vehicle operators special privileges but never justifies unsafe operations. Paula Burr, a spokeswoman for the state's attorney, emphasized this when describing the importance of this action: "Firefighters have to recognize that they have a responsibility, especially when approaching intersections."

If the firefighter chooses to contest the charges, his defense likely will be based on the special privileges granted to him in the traffic law. In Maryland (as in most states), the driver of an emergency vehicle receives these privileges while:

  1. Responding to an emergency.
  2. Pursuing a violator or suspected violator of the law.
  3. Responding to, but not while returning from, a fire alarm.

The privileges include running a red light, stop sign or yield sign, exceeding the speed limit, and disregarding turn or other directional signals. But each provision also carries with it a responsibility. Thus, while the emergency driver may pass a red signal, stop sign or yield sign, the law allows this "only after slowing down as necessary for safety." Likewise, drivers may exceed the speed limit "only so long as the driver does not endanger life or property."

The principle is reinforced by the final paragraph of this section: "Driver not relieved from duty of care. This section does not relieve the driver of an emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons."

Maryland courts repeatedly have interpreted this statute to mean that drivers of emergency vehicles are liable for ordinary negligence, although their conduct is not measured by the same yardstick as the actions of operators of conventional vehicles. They are bound to exercise reasonable care and diligence as the circumstances of the case may impose.

There has been no question that the firefighter was driving an emergency vehicle, and that he was responding to what he believed to be an emergency. However, as the prosecutor made clear, the key question is whether the safety restrictions that accompany the special privileges were violated. The prosecution must show that the vehicle did not slow down as necessary for safety at the intersection or that it was being operated at a speed that endangered life or property.

In any criminal action, the prosecution must prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt. Because these legal requirements are quite subjective, a likely defense strategy will be to challenge the claim that the driver was not "acting reasonably" or that he did not exercise "reasonable care" in light of the particular circumstances of this collision. A prior decision concluded that negligence and reasonable care are relative terms and their application depends on the situation and the degree of care which the circumstances reasonably impose.

An additional defense argument could be that the degree of negligence ordinarily required to establish a criminal offense is higher than that required in a civil suit. Criminal liability cannot be found in every careless act merely because it resulted in an injury to another. As one court noted, a long distance separates the negligence which makes one criminally liable from that which establishes civil liability. Other courts, however, have held that a person who is charged with a special duty that involved danger to the safety of others can be more easily convicted of a crime, even if the mistake was inattention. It could be argued that the operator of an emergency vehicle is charged with a special duty since emergency response does involve increased risk.

The outcome of this case may depend on the resolution of subjective issues such as the reasonableness of the driver's performance, and whether he exercised an adequate degree of care in light of the circumstances of this crash. Regardless of the conclusion, this case illustrates an important point: driving with reckless disregard for the safety of others is never acceptable. Numerous courts have upheld this principle in finding against emergency vehicle operators.

Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.