Fire Engine in DC Kills One, Injures Another

By Peter DePaolis

Fire engines report to emergency calls every day in the state, and when they do they race through city streets with their lights and sirens on. In most cases, they do so without injury. This past March, one D.C. fire engine was involved in an accident that killed one motorist and injured a pregnant pedestrian in Northeast Washington just off Rhode Island Avenue.

The collision involved the fire engine and two other vehicles. One vehicle was so mangled that it did not even resemble a vehicle after the crash. The male driver of that vehicle died after being trapped inside of it. The woman injured was walking on the sidewalk and was struck by the collision. However, the initial investigation revealed that the fire truck struck the sedan.

Only one firefighter suffered injuries, and they were minor. Drivers of fire engines must abide by special regulations and rules compared to average motorists. They are required to use their lights and sirens, but also slowing before passing through stop signs and red lights. They can exceed the speed limit posted, but only if it does not pose a danger to anyone around.

Unfortunately, when a fire engine causes an accident, seeking compensation is more complicated than when an average motorist causes the crash.

The Laws Regarding Fire Department Accidents in Washington, DC, Maryland, and VA

The fire department is a government entity. Therefore, if you were to file a claim against them for your injuries, you are filing a lawsuit against the government. Filing a complaint against the city is difficult, and you should always consult with an attorney in these types of cases. In most instances, fire engines fall under sovereign immunity, and cities prohibit you from filing a lawsuit against the city.

What is Sovereign Immunity

Sovereign immunity, also referred to as government immunity, is precisely how it sounds: the government is immune from being held legally responsible. The purpose of this comes from a law in place since 1793, which prohibits any citizen from suing the government unless the government agrees to the lawsuit.

The laws vary by state. Some states are more lenient with lawsuits against the government, while others strictly prohibit them. The local or state government will make an exception and often allow a lawsuit or claim to be filed, especially when accidents occur between emergency vehicles.

While the state or city will allow for the claim, do not assume they will settle right away or that the process will be easy. The courts are quite forgiving to emergency response teams, mainly if the accident occurred during a real emergency and if there is any indication that the other driver was partially at-fault for the incident.

Were the Lights On?

If the firetruck’s lights and siren were on at the time of the accident, and they hit you on their way to an emergency, it may be challenging to win a case. Cars are legally required to move out of the way when a fire truck approaches with lights and sirens. Drivers are required to be aware of their surroundings as well. Therefore, when a driver fails to move out of the way and causes an accident, the insurance company will likely put the driver at-fault – not the fire engine operator.

Could You be Partially At-Fault?

Any partial fault in these cases can affect the outcome of your case significantly. Already, the courts give leeway to emergency response crews, because motorists must get out of their way when they see them coming. While the driver could have slowed or stopped, if you fail to move over and the approaching fire truck strikes you, your contribution to the incident could reduce your compensation or force the courts to dismiss it entirely.

Common Causes of Fire Engine Accidents

A fire truck is a huge vehicle on the road. They often drive at speeds well over the posted speed limit so that they may reach an emergency they were dispatched to. Motorists have a responsibility to pull over and get out of the way if they see a fire engine approaching. However, not all drivers comply with this. Likewise, not all drivers of fire engines are as cautious as the law requires – especially through intersections.

Some common reasons fire engines collide with other vehicles and pedestrians include:

  • Failure to Pull Over – The most common cause of these accidents is a failure to pull over by drivers as the fire truck approaches. When a vehicle fails to pull over, they could be rear-ended, but also it forces the fire truck to maneuver in heavy traffic, which is dangerous while at high speeds and could cause them to strike another vehicle that did pullover.
  • Drivers Slowing Down – Everyone likes to “rubberneck” at an accident scene. Unfortunately, when drivers slow or stop entirely to look, they may stop suddenly in front of an approaching fire engine.
  • Driver Exhaustions – Firefighters work long shifts, get calls overnight, and their sleep patterns are disrupted. As a result, they are more likely to drive fatigued, which slows reaction times and could increase the chances of a crash.

Do You Need an Attorney?

After an accident, it is not clear who is at fault or whether you should hire an attorney. The city might even contact you and attempt to offer compensation to avoid a lawsuit. Regardless, there is no risk to meet with an attorney and explore your options. Furthermore, if you do decide to file a claim, you will need an attorney who can help collect evidence and pierce through that government immunity that fire companies take for granted.

If you suspect that the fire truck driver was at-fault, or you have suffered severe injuries in a collision with a fire engine, speak with an attorney from Koonz McKenney Johnson & DePaolis LLP now.

Schedule your consultation by calling an office location near you or contacting us online.

About the Author
Peter DePaolis joined the firm in 1980 and has since represented a large number of individuals involved in automobile collisions, truck accidents, bus crashes, defective products, and medical malpractice cases. A significant portion of Mr. DePaolis’ practice is devoted to working on behalf of people suffering from asbestosis, mesothelioma, and other asbestos-related cancers. He has led his firm’s fight against the asbestos industry and has recovered over $30 million in damages for asbestos victims and their families.