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Fatal fire truck crash reaches Ohio Supreme Court

As drivers, we learn to yield to police and fire vehicles on their way to an emergency. When we see flashing lights or hear sirens, we know to pull over and wait for the squad car or fire engine to pass. But what if there's little to no warning, and what expectations do we have that police or fire officials will obey traffic signals? Is the city immune from liability if its police officers or firefighters get into an accident on the way to an emergency?

These are the issues being argued in a fire truck accident lawsuit that's reached the Ohio Supreme Court. A woman whose husband was killed in a crash with a fire truck in Massillon, Ohio, in 2008, contends that the firefighter behind the wheel was driving at excessive and unsafe speeds given the neighborhood and the nature of the emergency. Furthermore, her lawsuit says, the firefighter failed to use an air horn or apply the brakes before reaching the intersection where the crash happened.

The lawsuit, which seeks more than $25,000, also accuses the firefighter of violating state laws, local ordinances and departmental policies regarding safe driving. The city argues the crash was unavoidable because the man failed to yield to the oncoming fire truck as he crossed the intersection.

The city is requesting immunity from liability in the crash, which happened as the truck was on its way to a vehicle fire. It actually was granted immunity from civil liability by the Stark County Common Pleas Court in 2010, but the 5th District Court of Appeals reversed that decision. The city appealed that ruling and the case went to the high court, which heard arguments Wednesday morning.

The central issue is whether the city can be denied immunity based on the firefighter's violation of traffic laws while responding to an emergency. The Common Pleas Court judge ruled there was a lack of evidence that the firefighter driving acted recklessly or with malicious intent. But the plaintiff's lawyer argued that the facts of the case "provide a very clear explanation of reckless and wanton misconduct."

The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, but is not obligated to issue a ruling within a certain timeframe. Until it does, motorists may want to keep a watchful eye out for emergency vehicles who might come speeding through a traffic light without warning.

Source: IndeOnline.com, "State high court hears arguments in fatal Massillon fire truck crash," Feb. 8, 2012

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