County might be liable for freeway death caused by parked fire truck

If a public entity, such as a county's firefighting unit, causes an accident, under certain circumstances the county may be "immune" from a lawsuit. However, depending on the situation, a public entity may still be held liable for injuries or a wrongful death under certain exceptions to the immunity law.

The California Court of Appeal case of Brown v. County of Los Angeles demonstrates how the interplay of California laws might create an opportunity to hold a public entity responsible for negligent actions.

A fire truck . . . parked on the freeway

The victim was driving on the freeway in the early morning hours when he suddenly came upon a county fire truck that was blocking two lanes of highway. The firemen were on the scene due to an unrelated vehicle fire.

The stopped fire truck did not have rear emergency lights, flares, reflectors or other warning devices in back of the truck. Unfortunately, the victim was killed by the collision with the fire truck.

Family members brought suit against the county and others, alleging negligence and wrongful death. The county, as a public entity, argued that it had absolute immunity under California law for any injury caused by fighting fires. The trial court agreed with the county, dismissing the case before the family even had its full day in court. The family appealed this decision.

An exception to immunity?

The California Court of Appeal noted that while one section of California law does provide immunity for conduct that constitutes fighting fires, another provision of California law creates an exception to that immunity for actions that constitute both fighting fires and operating a motor vehicle.

While fire fighters should not be deterred from fighting fires due to fear of liability, they should still be held liable for the operation of motor vehicles which does not relate to the conduct of the actual firefighting operation.

The victim's family might need to develop further evidence to make their case in the end. However, where the family did not witness the accident, and the only witness was their dead family member, they should not have been expected to plead their case before having access to all the necessary information through the court's discovery process.

Therefore, the early dismissal by the lower court of the motor vehicle accident case against the county was reversed. The victim's family would have another day in court to amend their pleadings and make their case.

A careful analysis of your case

If a loved one is killed due to the negligence of another party, that party should be held accountable. Even if that party is a public entity which claims immunity, depending on the circumstances and the behavior involved, an exception to the law might apply. If you have suffered a loss, a skilled personal injury lawyer can review your individual case and work to recover damages for your tragic loss.