When Fire Department Apparatus Violates Speed Laws
Generally Held by Courts That Apparatus Is Not Subject to Speed Laws—Priority of Rights of Way—Care Must Be Exercised
GENERALLY it has been held that fire department apparatus is not subject to speed or traffic regulations specified in state laws or city ordinances. In fact, in the majority of cases the rule is sustained that statutes or ordinances regulating the speed of motor vehicles are inapplicable to the police or fire apparatus while on active duty. This is true although the law establishing the speed limit employes the words “all vehicles,” “any vehicle,” or “any person.”
For instance, in the leading case of Balthasar vs. Pacific Company, 202 Pac. 37, it was disclosed that a state law provides:
“No person shall operate or drive a motor vehicle or other vehicle on any public highway at a greater rate of speed than 15 miles an hour in approaching any steam, electric or other railway crossing at grade, or crossing or intersection of highways, or in approaching or going around corners or curves in the highway.”
One day when a fire truck was going to a fire it collided with a street car and killed two firemen who were riding on the truck. The dependents of the firemen sued the electric railway company whose counsel attempted to avoid liability on the grounds that the fire apparatus was exceeding the speed limit. However, the Court held the dependents of the deceased firemen entitled to recover damages, stating the following important law
“Notice to the person required to yield the right-of-way is essential, and a reasonable opportunity to stop or otherwise yield the right-of-way necessary in order to charge a person with the obligation fixed by law to give precedence to the fire apparatus. … It be conceded that the
language of the Motor Vehicle Act in fixing speed limits, and regulating the use of public streets, is broad enough to apply to a motor fire truck responding to a fire alarm. But a familiar and fundamental rule of construction requires that this general language shall not be construed to apply to the government or its agencies unless expressly included by name. … It is a general rule, in the interpretation of
statutes limiting rights and interests, not to construe them to embrace the sovereign power or government, unless the same be expressly named therein, or intended by necessary implication.”
Also, in Devine vs. City of Chicago, 172 Ill. App. 246, a fireman was killed when the fire apparatus on which he was riding ran into a hole in the street wrecking the vehicle. The dependents of the fireman sued the city for damages alleging
that the city street department officials negligently permitted the hole to exist in the street, having had knowledge of the defective condition a reasonable length of time to have remedied it.
The city counsel argued that the city was not liable because the fireman was negligent in that he was violating a municipal ordinance when the injury occurred. Notwithstanding this contention the higher Court sustained the lower Court’s decision holding the city liable, saying:
“The question of contributory negligence on the part of plaintiff’s intestate is the main question presented on this appeal. The evidentiary facts are not controverted except as to the speed at which the deceased was driving at the time he was injured … He took the usual risks of an employment of a dangerous character, but he did not assume the risks of the insecurity of the streets resulting from the culpable negligence of the city. He was bound in driving to exercise the care which a prudent person would ordinarily exercise under similar circumstances. We are of the opinion that a city ordinance regulating the speed of vehicles driven upon the streets of a city does not apply to members of the fire department of the city when responding to a fire alarm.”
On the other hand, it is important to know that the circumstances of an injury to a fireman, sustained when fire apparatus is being driven at excessive speed, may be such that be not entitled to damages. This is particularly true if the accident results solely from his own negligence or carelessness. An example of this phase of the law is found in Illinois vs. Scheevers, 134 Ill. App. 514.
In this case it was shown that the fire marchal of the city, while driving to a fire at a rate-in excess of that permitted by an ordinance of the city, drove upon the track of a railroad company and came in collision with an engine. It was held upon the evidence that the deceased was guilty of contributory negligence in so doing and. therefore, that the ordinance of the city was binding upon the fire marshal. This Court said:
“Appellee’s intestate at the time he met with the injuries which caused his death was therefore violating a valid and binding ordinance of the city. That he would not have been injured otherwise is obvious. Its violation by the deceased (fire marshal) constituted, as a matter of law. a prima facie case of negligence on his part. … Such violation contributed to the injury which resulted in his death. Contributory negligence is nothing more or less than negligence on the part of the plaintiff, and the rules of law applicable to negligence of a defendant are applicable thereto.”
“It must be conceded that the language of the Motor Vehicle Act in fixing speed limits, and regulating the use of the public streets, is broad enough to apply to a motor fire truck re-sponding to a fire alarm. But a familiar and fundamental rule of construction requires that this general language shall not be construed to apply to the government or its agencies unless expressly included by name.”
Chief Answers Alarm Outside City
Another important point of the law on this subject was decided in Hubert vs. Granzow, 155 N. W. 204, in which the Court held that municipal fire department employes are not subject to speed laws when responding to a fire alarm, although the fire is outside the city limits.
In this case a pedestrian was killed by a fire chief’s automobile which was being driven at a speed greatly in excess of the speed ordinance in answer to a fire alarm outside the corporation limits. The dependents of the pedestrian sued the chief for damages alleging that his negligence in violating the city motor vehicle speed laws, when not answering a fire alarm within the city, resulted in his liability. However, the Court held the chief not liable, saying:
“It is probably true that no legal duty is imposed upon a city fire department to assist in extinguishing tires outside the city: but it is a matter of common knowledge that such departments almost invariably respond when called upon in such cases. Actuated by motives of humanity rather than by the mandate of strict legal duty, they seldom refuse to give their services to their neighbors in case of need. While the law may not impose a legal duty upon them to assist in extinguishing fires outside the city, it certainly does not forbid them from doing so. If they respond to a call without the city, the same need for haste exists as when they respond to a call within the city; and for the same reasons they should not be required to observe the speed regulations in the one case more than in the other, unless the law expressly so provides.”
Priority of Rights of Way
Frequently discussion has arisen whether or not a municipal fire department vehicle has the right of way over other apparatus, where the state or city law grants the same privilege or right of way to other vehicles, such as government mail trucks, salvage corps vehicles, ambulances, etc. This point of the law was settled in the recent case of Farrell vs. Fire Insurance Salvage Corp., 179 N. Y. S. 477.
The facts of this case are that a battalion chief in the fire department of the City of New York, in the performance of his duty, was on his way to a fire. He was riding in the front seat of a fire department automobile, seated beside one of his subordinates who was a fireman regularly detailed as a driver. At the intersection of two streets the automobile in which the chief was seated collided with a larger automobile of the salvage corps proceeding to the same fire in answer to the same alarm.
The chief was severely injured and sued the Fire Insurance Salvage Corps for damages. The latter contended that the fire department apparatus did not have the right of way in view of the following ordinance:
“The officers and men of the fire department, and the officers and men of the insurance patrol, respectively, with their apparatus of all kinds, when on duty, shall have the right of way.
“The Legislature undoubtedly provided that the city fire department should be in control at a fire, subject to no interference by defendant or its agents; but they did not attempt to weigh the nice questions of ‘right of way’ between fire apparatus proceeding to a fire, if there could be any dispute on the subject. The object of both organizations is practically the same. While we read of rivalry in the effort to reach the scene of the conflagration, with resulting conflict at times, in the days of the old volunteer fire departments, such conditions do not exist under modern municipal methods… Both the plaintiff (chief) in his automobile and the defendant’s (salvage corps’) fire truck were undoubtedly traveling at high speed. That is what the vehicles were intended for, they were equipped with alarm bells, and defendant’s truck had a siren whistle… Now it is apparent that no priority in right of way is expressly granted by the Legislature as between the city fire department and the defendant (salvage corps) … While plaintiff and defendant had a right of way over other vehicles, as between themselves there was no right of way in favor of either.”
In still another leading case, Coleman vs. Fire Insurance Patrol of New Orleans, 48 So. 130, a similar point of the law was involved in which it was shown that a city ordinance granted the right of way to apparatus of both the city fire department and salvage corps. However, the law further provided:
“Provided, however, that nothing in this act shall be so construed as to lessen, in any way, the authority of the fire department of the city in which such association shall have its domicile or to warrant or justify any interference with them in the performance of their duties.’’
On the night of June 23rd, between 11 and 12 o’clock, an alarm of fire was sounded and a fire truck started to the fire. At the same time from another location the salvage corps vehicle started to the same fire. The night was dark and the street lights were temporarily out of commission.
The two vehicles collided at a street intersection severely injuring a city fireman who sued the salvage insurance company for damages. The fireman proved that the salvage vehicle failed to take the most direct route to the fire.
In view of this testimony and the above quoted law, the Court held the salvage insurance company responsible for the accident and. therefore, liable for the injury. This Court said:
“There was some attempt to show, or rather to theorize to the effect, that the patrol people were at fault in not taking a more direct route from their house to the fire and that the collision might have been attributable to some defect in the sight of the driver. … The obligation which rests upon the officers and men of the patrol, in responding to a fire alarm, to be on the lookout for the apparatus of the fire department, is more imperative than is that of the officers and men of the fire department to be on the lookout for the apparatus of the patrol.”
Must Exercise Care
When operating fire department automobiles on the streets, the rule is that a greater amount of care is required than in those cases of the use of ordinary motor vehicles where the maximum limit of speed is fixed by the law. Therefore, the law requires the use of efficient signals to warn all persons of the approach of fire department vehicles.
For example, in the leading case of City of Sacramento vs. Hunger, 249 Pac. 223, a city sued the owner of a private automobile to recover the value of a demolished municipal vehicle which collided with the private machine when its owner failed to drive to the curb and stop.
The city introduced testimony showing that the municipal vehicle was equipped with a siren which was being sounded continuously as the car was being driven on the street at the rate of 45 miles per hour.
However, since the private car owner proved that several individuals in the vicinity of the accident did not hear the siren, the Court held the city not entitled to recover a judgment, saying:
“There can be no doubt that there is ample testimony to show that the siren was continually sounded from the time the car started to the time at which the collision occurred, but, as in the very nature of the situation, there could be no direct testimony that said Hunger (car owner) at any time heard the siren before the accident, except by his own admission to that effect, and this he did not make. Obviously, the question whether said Hunger heard the siren was one of inference to be drawn by the jury from all the testimony in the case.”
Laws Strictly Construed
Usually, if a state or city law specifically restricts the rate of speed at which fire apparatus or other emergency vehicles may be driven, it is actionable negligence for a driver to violate the law. Moreover, the exact formulation of the law is referred to by the Court when determining the scope of the law.
For illustration, in the recent case of West vs. Jaloff, 232 Pac. 642, a state law was adjudicated which prescribed a speed limit for “motor vehicles.” The following section of the law defined “motor vehicles.” as follows:
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“The term ‘motor vehicle’ shall mean every self-propelled vehicle moving over the highways of this state, excepting road rollers, farm tractors, traction engines, fire extinguishing engines and police ambulances.”
A private ambulance being operated at a higher rate of speed than stipulated for private vehicles collided with a truck. The owner of the ambulance contended that the law exempted him from obeying the laws regulating the speed of private vehicles. However, the Court held the owner of the ambulance liable, stating the following important law;
“It will be noticed that this subdivision docs not exclude from the term ‘motor vehicle’ ambulances in general, but only police ambulances; so, if there is any privilege to private ambulances to run at greater speed then, or entitling them to the right of way over, other vehicles, it is not to be found in this section. … Whatever right of way defen-
dant’s machine may have had by virtue of its being an ambulance has no relation to the speed at which it was traveling, if such speed was above the statutory limit for automobiles in general, which at street intersections is 12 miles an hour.”
Right of City to Recover Damages
Obviously, a city is entitled to recover damages from any private individual or corporation where the testimony proves that an accident effecting damage to fire department equipment resulted from negligence on the part of the individual or corporation employe.
For instance, in a leading case, Shreveport vs. Ry. Company, 118 So. 872, a city sued a railway company for damages to a motor fire truck which was wrecked when it collided with a pole as a result of the driver swerving from the street to avoid colliding with a train at a railway crossing.
The driver of the fire truck testified that he was returning from a fire and approached the crossing believing that the usual flagman was there. When he was near the track he observed a train approaching and he swerved the truck to avoid a collision.
There was no mechanic near able to repair the damaged truck. The city purchased a new truck and sued to recover the difference between the new truck price and the value of the damaged truck.
Since witnesses testified that the flagman was not at his post when the train and fire truck approached the crossing, the higher Court held the city entitled to recover $6,900 damages, and said:
“The flagman was not at his post, and that this, and not any recklessness on the part of the driver of the truck, was the direct cause of the accident. … The driver of the truck had a right to assume, when no flagman appeared, that no train was approaching: and if thereafter he perceived a train approaching, he was required to do no more than what then seemed to him best to avoid the collision,”
When Railway Trains Block Fire Apparatus
Still another important point of the law. which requires frequent solution, involves the liability of a railway company which blocks streets and interferes with passage of fire apparatus.
Ordinarily, neither a city nor a property owner has right of legal action against a railroad company which blocks passage of fire apparatus and thereby increases damage caused by fire, if it is proved that the railroad employes did not negligently or purposely block the street.
For example, in Fire Insurance Company vs. Mellon, 220 N. W. 331, it was shown that railway company employes violated a state law which provides that the fire department shalll have full right of way on all streets when responding to a fire alarm. The law further provides that any person who shall wilfully interfere with any fireman in the performance of his duty shall be liable for all damages resulting to any property.
An owner whose property was damaged as a result of a delay sued the railway company and proved that the driver of the fire truck was compelled to detour around the train with the result that the building was considerably damaged before they arrived.
However, since it was not proved that the engineer or other employe of the railroad company had purposely or negligently blocked the street, the Court held the railway company not liable, and said:
“There is no evidence of willfulness nor any evidence of negligence, unless the mere fact of hindrance constitutes such negligence. The railroad company had the undoubted right to use its railway in the ordinary course of business until it should come to its notice in some way that it was interfering, or was about to interfere, with the operations of the fire department. … Manifestly some notice and some appreciable time would be requisite to enable those in charge of the movement of the train to adapt themselves to the approach of the fire truck and to clear the street crossing for that purpose. … No one had warned or notified those in charge of the train.”
Arson Record in Illinois for a Year
Twenty-nine convictions for arson and burning to defraud was the record in Illinois for the fiscal year ending June 30, according to the annual report of State Fire Marshal S. L. Legreid. The number is considerably larger than in any recent years, and in the opinion of Mr. Legreid would have been larger had not certain promising cases been continued to later terms of court.
A total of 537 cases was investigated, of which 192 are still open for further investigation. One of the notable convictions was that of a pyromaniac who confessed to setting nine fires in one city and seven in another.
An unusual method of procedure was tried on one case in which the evidence was not sufficient to sustain a charge of arson or burning to defraud. An indictment was obtained in Federal Court charging fraudulent use of the mails. The charge is based on the fact that the proof of loss was sent through the mails.
Mr. Legreid says that a wave of incendiary fires has persisted throughout the year and has kept most of his men engaged on criminal investigations.