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Volunteer fire department to defend itself in lawsuit

| Dec 10, 2019 | Sovereign immunity |

A volunteer fire department ambulance hit a 17-year-old crossing the street in the Pennsylvania town of Monroeville at 3:45 p.m. on October 17. Even though the ambulance’s lights and siren were said to be activated, the high school senior crossed the street and was struck by the vehicle.

Now the fire department faces two lawsuits for $35,000 each. One is on behalf of the minor, and the other is by the parents. The suit names the ambulance driver, claiming he did not use the vehicle’s horn or otherwise alert the teen, whose injuries included broken bones. Because the incident occurred as the vehicle traveled on the wrong side of the road, the driver was subsequently issued a traffic violation ticket for $151.

Sovereign immunity laws

Fire departments and personnel do have some protections. Sovereign immunity is a legal doctrine that goes back to the 18th century or further, generally stipulating that a state or municipal entity can’t be sued. The rationale is that individuals, groups or other municipalities can’t sue the bodies that make laws. There are, however, exceptions to that rule. Common examples include the reckless operation of motor vehicles and public duty doctrine wherein the municipal representatives are liable for injuries caused to an individual.

Safety personnel do have protections

First responders like ambulance drivers, firefighters, police, and other representatives assume significant risk to serve their community. They almost always do this in good faith and with proper conduct, but unfortunately, emergencies can still lead to:

  • An unsuccessful rescue where the victim dies from their injuries
  • Secondary accidents like a boy walking in front of an ambulance
  • Injury or damage that was unavoidable in the course of successfully rescuing victims

People of action need to defend themselves

The charged nature of this work can lead to an investigation of the circumstances in dispute. If the service personnel or department were performing their duties, they likely won’t be held liable for injuries or damages. Nevertheless, emergency services may still need to defend their actions in a court of law. Doing so should never be considered a waste of taxpayer money, but rather an affirmation that a community’s tax dollars are put to good use.