This case arose out of a collision between the plaintiff’s car and a fire truck.
On December 3, 2011, two municipal fire trucks were dispatched in response to an emergency call. It is undisputed that both trucks had their lights and sirens activated. The first truck passed through the intersection of Avery Street and 7th Street without incident. Before the second truck reached the intersection, however, the traffic light turned red.
The truck driver, Jeffrey Boyd, testified that the Opticon system, which would have insured that the light remained green as the truck entered the intersection, was not operating properly. Therefore, he slowed down as he neared the intersection, saw no approaching traffic, and proceeded accordingly. The plaintiff testified that he had the green light and that he did not hear the truck’s siren. The two vehicles collided in the intersection. The investigating officer concluded that Boyd was negligent in failing to yield the right-of-way.
The plaintiff sued the city and the driver of the fire truck. Following discovery, the defendants filed a motion for summary judgment alleging that they had fully complied with the duty of care required in cases involving emergency vehicles. The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment.
W.Va. Code 17C-2-5 establishes special rules for emergency vehicles, including ambulances. Did the plaintiff here prove sufficient facts to state a claim for negligence against an ambulance provider?
The Supreme Court’s reversal of summary judgment is an important reminder that fact issues must be resolved by juries, and not by judges exercising their summary judgment powers.
To begin with, the Supreme Court acknowledged that W.Va. Code 17c-2-5 was applicable and that it established a “distinct” standard of care applicable to drivers of emergency vehicles. Nevertheless, the court concluded that determining whether Boyd’s conduct in this particular case complied with that standard was “a factual inquiry” that precluded summary judgment.
W.Va. Code 17C-2-5 provides, inter alia, that a fire truck, ambulance, or other emergency vehicle may disregard traffic signals if it flashes its lights and gives an audible signal. However, W.Va. Code 17C-2-5(d) also makes it clear that the driver of an emergency vehicle is not relieved of the duty of “due care for the safety of all persons.” Thus, even though an emergency driver may disregard some of the rules of the road, this code section “still requires some cautionary conduct on his part.” Peak v. Ratliff, 185 W.Va. 548, 408 S.E.2d 300 (1991). In fact, syllabus point 4 of Peak provides:
W.Va. Code, 17c-2-5(d) (1971), requires the drivers of an emergency vehicle to exercise due care under the circumstances to avoid collisions between the emergency vehicle and persons or property.
In this case, the court was persuaded that there was conflicting proof of negligence. Even though Boyd testified that he sounded his siren and flashed his lights as required by 17c-2-5, and that he slowed down before entering the intersection, the investigating officer reached a contrary conclusion. Furthermore, Boyd’s knowledge that the Opticon system was deactivated should have prompted him to drive even more vigilantly. There was also circumstantial proof that Boyd failed to reduce his speed. For example, the truck collided with the rear of the plaintiff’s car--indicating that it was almost through the intersection when the impact occurred. Furthermore, the force of the impact caused the plaintiff’s car to rotate 180 degrees, calling into question Boyd’s testimony regarding his reduced speed.
From all of this, the court concluded that there were “multiple genuine issues of material fact” requiring a reversal of the summary judgment order.
This case is important for at least three reasons.
First, it reminds us that summary judgment is disfavored under West Virginia law. The nonmoving party does not bear any burden of proof but, instead, is only required to show that genuine issues of fact exist. This is sufficient to preclude summary judgment.
Second, we see here the importance of circumstantial proof in summary judgment practice. The court emphasized two pieces of circumstantial proof that supported the plaintiff’s claim--i.e., the location of the impact and the rotation of the plaintiff’s car as a result of the impact. These facts called into question Boyd’s version of events and, therefore, played an important part in the court’s analysis.
Third, we are given a template for how W.Va. Code 17C-2-5 will be applied in the future. Just because the driver has met the minimum requirements of W.Va. Code 17C-2-5 by sounding a siren and flashing a light does not end the analysis. The driver still has a duty of due care for the safety of others and will be held liable for a breach of that duty.