The operations of emergency vehicles are a common everyday feature on the streets and highways of the United States. These operations consist of the employment of vehicles that include ambulances, police cars, and fire trucks in response to situations demanding more or less immediate reaction. Due to the frequency of their operations and the nature of their use, emergency vehicles are inevitably involved in accidents that result in the bringing of legal actions seeking to recover damages for death, personal injury, or property damage caused by such accidents.
Emergency vehicles are employed for public purposes and, as their name suggests, are frequently called upon to respond in situations created by public or private emergencies. In some states, governmental units with responsibility for the operations of emergency vehicles may therefore argue that they should be immune from liability in tort actions resulting from the involvement of those vehicles in accidents. A related consideration is the fact that the operators of emergency vehicles are often exempted from the duty to obey traffic regulations during emergency operations. A plaintiff in such an action may assert that emergency vehicle operators nonetheless have a duty to exercise care to avoid injuring others during the operation of their vehicles and that a breach of that duty was the cause of the accident at issue in the litigation. In particular, a plaintiff in such a case may assert that conduct such as the negligent or reckless operation of a police car in a high-speed chase that unnecessarily endangers other drivers or pedestrians should not be excused on the ground that the vehicle was responding to an emergency at the time.
Tort law, the branch of the legal system that deals with the recovery of damages for private injuries or wrongs not arising from contractual relationships, has developed in the United States out of the separate legal systems of each of the states rather than out of a single unified body of federal law. As a result, the legal standards governing tort liability for the use of emergency vehicles will vary from state to state.