Plaintiff Wins Case Involving Crash With Fire Rescue Vehicle

In Jones v. Bradley County, No. E2015-00204-COA-R3-CV (Tenn. Ct. App. Jan. 15, 2016), plaintiff sued Bradley County after she collided with a truck responding to a fire at a red-light intersection. Plaintiff had the green light at the intersection. Defendant, a fire rescue employee, was driving a Ford F-250 truck that was equipped with a siren and emergency lights. Defendant proceeded to turn left against a red-light, at which time plaintiff’s car collided with defendant’s truck, causing plaintiff significant injuries.

Bradley County relied on Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-108, which “provides privileges to emergency vehicle drivers under certain circumstances.” This statute allows emergency vehicle drivers to “proceed past a red or stop signal[,]” but still requires the driver “to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons[.]” While analyzing this case, though, the Court pointed out that that “[t]he obligation to exercise due care is, thus, not excused by the fact that the [emergency] driver is responding to an emergency call.” (citation omitted).

Bradley County further asserted that the sole cause of this accident was plaintiff’s failure to comply with Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-132, which provides that “upon the immediate approach of an authorized emergency vehicle making use of audible and visual signals…the driver of every other vehicle shall yield the right-of-way.” The Court pointed out that, when previously applying this statute, the Court has “noted the requirement of due care when entering an intersection even under authority of a green light” and “observed that if plaintiff should have heard the siren or should have seen the blue lights flashing, she…cannot evade her duty to yield to an emergency vehicle by saying that she did not hear and did not see because she did not look.” (citation and internal quotations omitted). In response to this argument, plaintiff pointed to the County Rescue Service operations manual, claiming that defendant violated the portions of the manual that stated that emergency drivers should “slow to a safe speed at which a stop could be made, and insure that all traffic has yielded” and “change the siren mode” when approaching an intersection. Plaintiff further argued that the evidence showed that defendant did not drive with due care through the intersection.

During a bench trial, the evidence showed that defendant’s truck was a “slick top,” meaning that it did not have a light bar but instead had LED lights in the visor area facing forward, the front bumper, the front grille, and along the side steps and at the rear of the truck. The siren on the truck was capable of making three different sounds. According to defendant, he stopped at the painted stop bar at the intersection, had his lights and siren on, and looked to see if the intersection was clear before proceeding with his left turn against the red light. On cross examination, though, defendant admitted that because one car was stopped in the lane closest to him, he could only see 10 or 15 feet down the lane of traffic in which plaintiff was traveling.

Plaintiff testified that she “was driving normally, paying attention to the road, and was not distracted by cell phone use or anything else.” Plaintiff stated that she did not see the truck or lights or hear the sirens before the accident occurred. Plaintiff had a passenger who corroborated her testimony. A witness, who was traveling in the lane to the right of plaintiff (the lane closer to defendant’s truck), testified that she saw the emergency vehicle and stopped, but did not hear the siren. She also testified that defendant’s truck slowed down before entering the intersection but did not stop. Another witness who was working at a nearby gas station testified that he heard the siren before the crash, but only heard one type of siren and did not hear a change in the noise type. Another county employee testified that defendant “told him that he slowed down at the intersection” but “did not tell him that he had stopped the emergency vehicle before entering the intersection.”

Plaintiff had an expert witness testify that “an emergency officer approaching a red light is ultimately responsible for what happens in that intersection as he enters that intersection to go through it.” He stated that if an emergency driver’s view is obstructed, the vehicle should remain stopped until “the traffic light gives him the right-of-way.” He further stated that “slick top” vehicles like the one defendant was driving have to “exercise more care” because the lights are less visible than a light bar on top of a car. The trial judge ultimately found defendant 60% at fault and plaintiff 40% at fault. The County appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the verdict.

The Court of Appeals held that the evidence presented at trial did “not preponderate against the trial court’s finding that [defendant] was 60% at fault for the accident.” The Court specifically pointed out that defendant admitted he had a duty to use “extreme caution,” that there was evidence from which to conclude that defendant did not stop before entering the intersection, that there was no evidence that defendant changed his siren mode before entering the intersection, and that defendant admitted that he could only see 10-15 feet into plaintiff’s lane. This evidence was enough to support the trial judge’s findings of fault.

In addition to the fault findings, the County appealed the damages award to plaintiff, asserting that it was excessive and not supported by the evidence. The trial court awarded plaintiff $150,000 for pain and suffering and $150,000 for future medical expenses, reduced by her percentage of fault. Plaintiff had incurred pretrial medical expenses in the amount of $45,610 and had two physicians testify at trial regarding her condition. Of note, one of the physicians was her treating physician for about four years before the accident for pre-existing injuries and disabilities, and he testified that the accident caused plaintiff “intensified pain, permanent dysfunction, and ‘much more difficulty with daily life now.’” He also testify that the pain would get worse over time that she would “inevitably” need two surgical procedures, which would cost approximately $120,000. The trial court “credited the testimony and opinions of Plaintiff’s witnesses,” specifically noting that “in this case it’s one of the few I have ever seen, maybe the only one I have seen, where a treating doctor…was doing pain management and was able to actually say what is new and what is old in the patient.” Based on the evidence in the record, the Court of Appeals affirmed the damages awards.

While the plaintiff in this case was apportioned a fairly large percentage of fault, this case is still a good example of a plaintiff who presented enough evidence at trial to allow the Court of Appeals to affirm the favorable verdict. Most notably, the plaintiff’s use of her treating doctor as a witness regarding what pain and injuries were attributable to the accident resulted in a sizable award for pain and suffering and for future medical expenses. For plaintiffs with pre-existing pain or injuries, the use of a physician who treated them both before and after an accident can help attribute injuries and worsened pain to the accident itself.