Court of Appeals clarification to 1104(b) and reckless disregard standard will make defense of cases more difficult for municipalities.

The Court of Appeals determines when the ordinary negligence or reckless disregard standards apply to emergency vehicles. In its February 17, 2011 decision in Kabir v County of Monroe, the Court of Appeals altered the landscape of liability for emergency vehicles by articulating when an emergency vehicle engaged in an emergency operation is subject to the ordinary negligence standard and when the reckless disregard standard applies. In Kabir, a police officer, on his way to a respond to a burglary alarm, rear-ended the vehicle in front of him. Prior to the Court’s decision in Kabir, it was generally believed that, while the driver of an emergency vehicle still had to be careful, as long as the driver was engaged in an emergency operation, he or she would not be liable for any accidents, injuries etc. unless the driver drove “with reckless disregard for the safety of others.” The Court of Appeals has said that the reckless disregard standard is a heightened standard which “demands more than a showing of a lack of ‘due care under the circumstances’ typically associated with ordinary negligence. It requires evidence that ‘the actor has intentionally done an act of unreasonable character in disregard of a known or obvious risk that was so great as to make it highly probably that harm would follow’ and has done so with conscious indifference to the outcome” (Saarinen v Kerr, 84 NY2d 494 [1994]) However in Kabir the Court of Appeals held that the reckless disregard standard only applies in the situations enumerated in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104(b), which states that the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle can

  1. Stop, stand or park irrespective of the provisions of the Vehicle and Traffic Law
  2. Drive through a red light, flashing red light or stop sign as long as it slows down
  3. Exceed the speed limit as long as he or she does not endanger life or property
  4. Disregard regulations governing directions or movement or turning in specified directions.

Therefore, because the police officer in Kabir was not engaged in any of the activities listed in Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1104 (b), that is he was not speeding, going through a red light etc, his actions should be analyzed under the ordinary negligence standard. As Judge Graffeo noted in her dissent, under this new interpretation “[p]olice officers, firefighters or ambulance drivers who manage to obey traffic signals or travel within the speed limit are out of luck if they are involved in an accident. Their conduct will be assessed under the ordinary negligence standard, making it much easier for these ‘law abiding’ emergency responders to be held liable for damages.”