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Determining Negligence and Fault in Tennessee Accidents Involving Emergency Trucks and Vehicles

It is common knowledge that emergency vehicles, including ambulances and fire trucks, are allowed special privileges when responding to emergencies. However, those privileges are not without limit under Tennessee law.

Jones v. Bradley County is a 2015 Tennessee Court of Appeals case. The plaintiff, Robin Jones, was injured when her vehicle collided with a truck driven by Bradley County Fire Rescue employee Matthew Mundall, who was responding to an emergency call. Just prior to the accident, Ms. Jones had been traveling north towards an intersection with a green light. Mr. Mundall had been traveling west towards the intersection with a red light.

According to Mr. Mundall, he approached the intersection, entered the left turn lane, stopped, checked traffic, and then proceeded to make a left turn against the red light. As he made that turn, Ms. Jones collided with his truck. Ms. Jones testified that she never heard any siren or saw the truck prior to the collision. Martha Voyles, who had been traveling in the same direction as Ms. Jones, testified that Mr. Mundall did not make a complete stop at the intersection. However, Ms. Voyles was able to stop and avoid colliding with Mr. Mundall’s truck. Mr. Mundall testified that Ms. Voyles’ vehicle blocked his view of Ms. Jones’ lane, such that he could only see ten or fifteen feet down the lane.

Ms. Jones filed a claim against Bradley County Fire Rescue and Bradley County (collectively “Defendants”), alleging that Mr. Mundall had been negligent in the operation of his vehicle while in the course of his employment with Bradley County. At trial, the court assessed 60% fault against Mr. Mundall and 40% against Ms. Jones. Defendants appealed the decision.

On appeal, Defendants asserted that the trial court incorrectly apportioned fault to Mr. Mundall. Defendants relied on two Tennessee laws, Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-108 and Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-132. Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-108, emergency vehicle drivers are entitled to special privileges when responding to emergency calls, including the ability to legally disregard red lights. Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 55-8-132, other drivers have a duty to yield the right-of-way to authorized emergency vehicles using proper signals. Defendants argued that Mr. Mundall’s left turn against the red light was proper and that Ms. Jones was at fault for failing to yield the right-of-way to Mr. Mundall’s emergency vehicle.

In her response, Ms. Jones argued that the general “duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons” still applies to emergency vehicle drivers. Ms. Jones alleged that Mr. Mundall’s actions amounted to a breach of that duty and pointed to several provisions of two county rescue service operations manuals that Mr. Mundall allegedly violated. Those provisions included changing the siren mode when approaching intersections and proceeding at intersections only “after the driver can account for all oncoming traffic in all lanes yielding the right-of-way.” Several trial witnesses testified that Mr. Mundall had not turned his siren on, and Mr. Mundall’s own testimony established that he could not account for all oncoming traffic due to Ms. Voyles’ vehicle obstructing his line of sight.

The Court of Appeals of Tennessee agreed with the trial court and Ms. Jones that the general duty of care still applies to emergency drivers acting pursuant to their special privileges. The court also agreed with the trial court’s finding that Mr. Mundall had breached that duty. The court specifically highlighted the evidence that Mr. Mundall had not stopped at the intersection, the lack of evidence that Mr. Mundall turned his siren on, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that Mr. Mundall had chosen to proceed against the red light despite his admission that he could see no more than ten or fifteen feet down Ms. Jones’ lane. While the court also recognized that Ms. Jones had a duty to yield the right-of-way to Mr. Mundall, the court ultimately affirmed the trial court’s determination of fault.

The decision of the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in this case shows that emergency drivers are still subject to negligence principles under Tennessee law, depending on the facts of the truck accident. If you or someone you know has been injured by an emergency vehicle, please do not assume that there is nothing that can be done. An experienced lawyer who stays current with updates and trends in Tennessee law can aggressively advocate for and protect your legal rights.