What Higher Courts Have to Say Regarding Cases Relating to Injuries by Fire Apparatus
IT is well established law that a municipality is liable in damages for injuries negligently effected by employees who act within the scope of their employment in departments which are classified as “ministerial.” On the other hand, the higher Courts have consistently held that a city is not liable in damages for negligence of its officials or employees who perform governmental functions. The distinction between ministerial and governmental departments is that the latter are operated for the benefit of citizens without payment for such services, whereas ministerial departments are operated for profit to the city.
Various Courts have held that the maintenance of q Fire Department is a public or governmental function, and a municipality will not be liable, unless the state laws so provide, for the wrongful or negligent acts or omissions of the officials or employees in the performance of their duties, either in the actual work of extinguishing fires, or where persons on the public streets are injured by the negligence of firemen driving vehicles employed in the Fire Department.
The reason the higher Courts have consistently held municipalities not liable for injuries to persons, or damages to real property, arising from performance of governmental functions in its Fire Department, is that conduction and maintenance of a Fire Department is of a public character to be exercised in virtue of certain attributes of sovereignty delegated to it for the welfare and protection of its inhabitants. The other function of municipalities relates to special or private corporate purposes, for the accomplishment of which the city acts through agents or servants. In the latter case the city stands upon the same footing with a private corporation, and will be held to the same responsibility with a private corporation for injuries resulting from its negligence, whereas in conduction of a Fire Department the city never is on the same footing or in competition with a private corporation and, therefore, the functions performed are strictly governmental.
For illustration, in the recent case of Moses vs. City and County of Denver, 5 P. (2d) 581, it was shown that a citizen was injured and his automobile destroyed in a collision with a motor vehicle belonging to the Fire Department of the municipality which, at the time, was being driven to a fire. The injured automobile driver filed suit against the city to recover damages alleging that a municipality should be held responsible for injuries effected through negligence of its employees, irrespective whether the injury was effected by employees performing governmental functions. However, this
higher Court refused to hold the city liable, and stated the following important law:
“The authorities all hold that a municipality is not liable for the acts of officers or agents of the departments of health, police, or fire, while in the performance of public governmental functions and duties connected with and appertaining to such departments, not upon the theory that the officer is a member of such department, but because the duty performed by him is a public governmental duty. . . . The maintenance and operation of a municipal Fire Department being a governmental function, recent decisions, with some exceptions, sustain the general rule of the earlier cases that no municipal liability arises for negligence in connection therewith.”
Law of Stop Traffic Light Signals
Generally speaking, the higher Courts have upheld the validity of ordinances which require private automobiles to stop near the right hand curb upon hearing a siren of an approaching fire vehicle. However, this law is not applicable with respect to streets on which traffic lights are installed, particularly when the driver of a private automobile is approaching a street intersection having the traffic light open or green.
For instance, in Stone vs. Wood, 157 Atl. 829, it was disclosed that a city ordinance provides that “in case of Any alarm of fire” it shall be the duty of drivers of vehicles in a street in which fire apparatus is approaching to move such vehicle, without delay, to the right or left of the center of such street, so as to give free passage to such apparatus.
The facts of this case are that a captain of the Fire Department was going north, riding on a fire truck driven by another, and responding to a still alarm. The driver of a private automobile was driving east. The two vehicles reached the intersection of the streets at nearly the same time and were in collision at a point somewhat east of the center line. This intersection is equipped with an automatic traffic signal, suspended nearly over the point of the collision, of the familiar type showing alternately red and green lights to those approaching. At the time in question, the fire truck was approaching the intersection confronted with a red light in the signal. The driver of the private automobile was approaching from the truck driver’s left, but was running on a green light. The fire truck was plainly designated as such, and was equipped with an electric siren and a hell operated by a rope, both of which were sounding.
Subjects Treated in This Article
Operation of Municipal Fire Department is Governmental Function
The Law as to Stop Traffic Light Signals in Relation to Fire Apparatus
City not Bound to Illuminate Streets
Liability of City for Injuries Caused by Vehicle in Its Service
Right to Revoke License to Operate Automobile
Liability for the Moving of a Parked Automobile
The private automobile was moving at a rate somewhere between fifteen and forty miles an hour, and the driver never saw or heard the truck until just before the crash. The captain of the Fire Department was seriously injured and sued the driver of the private automobile for damages. It was contended that when the driver of the private automobile heard the fire truck’s siren he should have driven to the curb and stopped.
However, on account of the fact that the driver of the private automobile was approaching the street intersection and entered the same when confronted with the green light, the higher Court held the captain not entitled to recover damages, and said:
“The main contention concerned the respective rights of the parties at the intersection of the streets, nnd how those rights were affected by the ’stop’ and ‘go’ signal referred to. . . . The ordinance had no application to the defendant as he approached the intersection. There was no fire apparatus ‘approaching’ in the street that the defendant was traveling. So assuming that the siren and bell on the truck were such an ‘alarm’ as the ordinance contemplated, the ordinance applied to the defendant only after he entered the intersection area, and it was then too late to make compliance with it effective in any way; and his noncompliance did not proximately contribute to the collision.”
City Not Bound to Illuminate Streets
The law is well settled that there is no legal duty on the part of a municipality to light its thoroughfares or streets, and it cannot be held responsible for a mere insufficiency of light. Therefore, the failure to exhibit a red light or other signal at a point where an accident might happen because of mere unfamiliarity with the neighborhood on the part of drivers of automobiles is not sufficient to charge a municipality with negligence.
For example, in O’Rourke vs. City of Washington, 155 Atl. 100, an automobile driver sued a municipality for damages on the contention that the officials were negligent in failing to install a red light or danger signal at the approach to a dangerous curve and embankment. This failure on the part of the officials resulted in the driver driving over the embankment and sustaining severe injuries. In holding the city not liable, the Court said:
“It is the duty of one traveling by night to have such a headlight as will enable him to see in advance the face of the highway and to discover grade crossings, or other obstacles in his path, in time for his own safety, and to keep such control of his car as will enable him to stop and avoid obstructions that fall within his vision.”
Automobile Used in City’s Business
When determining whether a municipality is liable in damages for an injury effected by an automobile, used by an official or employee, the question whether the machine actually is owned by the city is not so important as “Was the automobile being used in city business when the accident occurred?” So held a higher Court in the late case of Wolfe vs. City of Miami, 134 So. 539.
The facts of this case are that city officials gave permission to a city employee to use bis own car for city purposes. The car was kept in repair by the city and the fuel to operate it was furnished by the city. One day the city employee loaned the car to a messenger to go on an errand and get some food for certain city employees. The messenger had driven into the city, obtained the food for which lie was sent, and was on his way back to the place where the employees were, when he negligently and carelessly ran over a pedestrian. The latter sued the city for damages. The counsel for the city contended that the municipality was not legally responsible because the automobile belonged to the employee. The lower Court held the city not liable, but the higher Court reversed this verdict, saying:
“In the case at bar the car was not owned in its technical sense by the city, but the evidence shows that it was being used by a city employee with the knowledge and consent of the city in the city’s business. Repairs and fuel for the car were furnished by the city, and the car itself was actually operated, whether rightfully or not, by the employee.
. . . All this was done with the knowledge, consent, and acquiescence of the city and its officials having authority to act for it.”
Right to Revoke License to Operate Automobiles
The legislative power to regulate travel over the highways and thoroughfares of the state for the general welfare is extensive. It may be exercised in any reasonable manner to conserve the safety of travelers and pedestrians. Therefore, since motor vehicles are instruments of potential danger, their registration and the licensing of their operators, and the right to operate them in public places, is not a natural and unrestrained right, but a privilege subject to reasonable regulation under the police power in the interest of the public safety and welfare. In other words, the power of a state or city to issue licenses imports the further power to withhold or to revoke such licenses upon noncompliance by holders thereof with prescribed conditions.
For illustration, in Watson vs. State Division of Motor Vehicles, 298 Pac. 481, it was disclosed that a state law provides that the license for operation of a motor vehicle shall be suspended if the owner or operator of such automobile is sued for damages for an injury inflicted by use of the vehicle and fails to pay a judgment rendered in favor of the injured person. In detail, the statute provides for the suspension of a person’s registration certificate and operator’s license in the event of his failure, within fifteen days after finality, to flischarge every judgment “for damages on account of personal injury, or damages to property in excess of one hundred dollars.”
A driver of an automobile, whose license was suspended because he failed to pay a judgment rendered in favor of an injured person, appealed to the higher Court on the contention that the law is void and unconstitutional. However, it is interesting to observe that the higher Court held the law valid and refused to permit the driver to operate an automobile, saying:
“A law that confers equal rights on all citizens of the state, or subjects them to equal burdens, is an equal law. . . . So long as the statute does not permit one to exercise the privilege while refusing it to another of like qualifications, under like conditions and circumstances, it is unobjectionable upon this ground. . . . While the protection of property is all-important, the safety of life and limb is paramount, and therefore the Legislature, in the exercise of the police power, might well provide for the suspension of an operator’s license upon his failure to pay any judgment, no matter how small, for damages for personal injuries, while reserving the right to suspend such license for failure to discharge judgments for damages to property only when such judgments are in excess of $100. Such a distinction is reasonable, and does not affect the validity of the law.”
Liability for Moving Parked Automobile
Considerable discussion has arisen from time to time whether or not a municipal officer, such as a Fire Department employee, may be liable in damages for moving a parked automobile, where such vehicle is parked in accordance with city ordinances. The recent higher Court case of Vaughn vs. Glenn, 161 S. E. 672, thoroughly discusses this point of the law.
The facts of this case are that the owner of an automobile had lawfully parked it on a public street where it remained for fifteen minutes under authority of a city ordinance which authorized such parking at the time and place at which the vehicle was parked. Without legal right or authority a municipal officer removed the automobile to a storage garage where it was not found by the owner until several weeks later, and then in a damaged condition.
The owner of the automobile sued the municipal officer to recover damages. It was contended that the officer could not be held liable in damages, because in removing the automobile he had acted in accordance with his regular duties as an official.
However, it is important to know that under the circumstances the higher Court held the officer liable, and said:
“If a person, without the consent of the owner or authority of law, removes the personal property of another from the place where the owner left it. and where the owner had the right to leave it. he becomes liable for any damage done it as a consequence thereof.”