In a civil dispute stemming from a traffic accident, a motorist appealed from the trial court’s order granting the City of Lafayette’s motion for summary judgment, claiming that it erred by finding that the City met its burden of establishing that no genuine issue of material fact remained as to whether the firefighter exercised due regard by slowing down before entering the intersection.
In the early evening of October 27, 2016, a firefighter for the City of Lafayette was driving a fire truck with its lights and siren in response to an emergency call about a gas leak inside a residence.
As he approached a red light at the intersection, he slowed down “almost to a complete stop” and sounded the fire truck’s air horn to signal his presence to the other drivers in the area. According to the firefighter, none of the other drivers in the area were moving at that time, he looked “both ways” to confirm that all of the vehicles in the area acknowledged his presence, and he “sat there for a good bit” before entering the intersection. He didn’t recall seeing the plaintiff’s car at the time.
As the fire engine went through the intersection, the firefighter again looked to his left and saw the plaintiff’s vehicle approaching the intersection from GA-1. He saw that the plaintiff’s vehicle was a “fair distance” away from the fire truck. The plaintiff, who admitted to the police that he was going about 55 miles per hour in the 45 mph zone, tried to get in front of the fire truck as it went through the intersection. The plaintiff said that he “thought he could get around the fire truck.” But he ultimately collided with the left side of the fire engine and suffered serious injuries.
A number of witnesses at the scene gave statements to the police about the accident. Although their accounts varied as to whether the traffic signal was red or green when the fire truck entered the intersection, they all agreed that the firefighter “slowed down and almost stopped before entering the intersection.” A mechanical engineer retained by the City concluded that the plaintiff would have first seen the fire truck from at least 500 feet away and that he could’ve avoided the collision if he’d not been speeding.
An accident reconstructionist retained by the plaintiff determined that the plaintiff and the firefighter should have been able to see each other when they were 570 feet apart. According to the expert, the firefighter failed to wait at the intersection or failed to make sure that the plaintiff acknowledged his presence at the intersection. The accident reconstructionist acknowledged that the plaintiff didn’t “perceive and respond early enough” and that he would’ve had more time to respond to the fire truck and to avoid the collision if he hadn’t been speeding.
Nevertheless, the expert testified that the plaintiff would have still collided with the fire truck even if he wasn’t speeding, and that the firefighter failed to observe the plaintiff’s vehicle at the intersection and ensure that the plaintiff was going to slow down or stop.
The Plaintiff Files a Negligence Lawsuit
The plaintiff filed a negligence lawsuit against the City, the firefighter, and the director of fire services and emergency management for Walker County, alleging the following:
- The firefighter breached his duty to operate the fire truck with reasonable care;
- The City and the director were liable because they failed to properly train the firefighter; and
- The firefighter was acting within the scope of his employment with the City at the time of the accident.
The City subsequently filed a motion to end the case, arguing that no genuine issues of material fact remained on the plaintiff’s negligence claim because the firefighter completely stopped or slowed down before going through the intersection as required by O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6. The trial court granted the City’s motion and found that the City met its initial burden of showing that no genuine issues of material fact remained on the plaintiff’s claim. The plaintiff appealed.
Court of Appeals Decision
On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred by granting the City’s motion and that genuine issues of material fact remain as to whether the firefighter exercised due regard by slowing down as necessary before entering the intersection and whether the firefighter’s actions were the proximate cause of his injuries.
Presiding Judge M. Yvette Miller wrote that genuine issues of material fact remained as to whether the firefighter slowed down as necessary under O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6 before driving through the red light.
The judge explained that it’s well settled that under Georgia law, an employer is responsible for the negligent or intentional torts of its employee, provided they are committed by the employee in furtherance and within the scope of the employer’s business. But O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6 sets out certain privileges for authorized emergency vehicles. The statute says that “the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle or law enforcement vehicle may proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation.”
But this privilege doesn’t relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle “from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons,” Judge Miller said.
Moreover, in construing the predecessor statute to O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6, the Court of Appeals stated generally that questions as to whether due regard was properly exercised are matters for a jury’s determination. In addition, the judge explained that the privileges listed in O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6 are affirmative defenses; as such, the City had the burden as the party moving for summary judgment to present “evidence sufficient to make out a prima facie case on its affirmative defense.” Indeed, the burden of proving the affirmative defense that the defendant is entitled to statutory exemptions from traffic regulations rests upon the defendant. In order for a defendant to claim exemptions applicable to emergency vehicles, the conditions of the emergency vehicle statute must be satisfied, she said.
The firefighter testified that he slowed down almost to a complete stop before proceeding through the red signal, and eye witnesses to the collision said that he “slowed down and almost stopped before entering the intersection,” but the plaintiff testified that as he approached the intersection, it “seemed like all of a sudden, the fire truck was there” and that the fire truck “kept coming” before he crashed into it. Plus, the plaintiff’s expert testified that the fire engine should’ve waited at the intersection or ensured that the plaintiff acknowledged his presence, and that he failed to observe the plaintiff’s vehicle at the intersection.
Because there was conflicting evidence as to whether the firefighter slowed down as was necessary before going through the red light and entering the intersection, genuine issues of material fact remained as to the City’s affirmative defense. Thus, the trial court erred when it granted the City’s motion on that basis. The trial court was reversed. Chandler v. City of Lafayette, 2023 Ga. App. LEXIS 484, 2023 WL 6859228 (Ga. App. October 18, 2023).
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