As a Missouri trucking accident attorney, I know firefighters are most often first responders to an accident, not the cause of the accident. But when fire trucks do hit other vehicles, the result can be just as bad as any other large truck collision with a smaller vehicle. In Anderson v. Massillon, an Ohio Supreme Court decision, the underlying accident with a fire truck killed the plaintiff’s husband and grandson. The trial court granted summary judgment to the town of Massillon and two firefighters, finding both that the firefighters had immunity and that their actions were not willful and wanton misconduct. But the Ohio appeals court reversed, saying a reasonable jury could hold that the actions were reckless, and “willful and wanton conduct” was essentially recklessness. The state Supreme Court drew a finer distinction between them but affirmed the ruling.
On a May morning in 2008, the fire department in Massillon got a call informing them of a car fire. The department dispatched one kind of truck, and then another after realizing the car fire was near a house. Both were using sirens. The first truck slowed as he reached an intersection controlled by stop signs, and Ronald Anderson, who was taking his grandson to school, stopped to let the truck go by. After it went by, Anderson proceeded through the intersection and was hit by the second fire engine, which broadsided it and killed both occupants. The second truck was estimated as traveling 44 to 50 mph in a 25 zone. After Cynthia Anderson filed suit, different experts testified that the view was blocked at the intersection, that the fire truck should have slowed more at the intersection, and that Anderson ran the stop sign.
The trial court ultimately granted summary judgment to the town and the firefighters, finding no evidence that the firefighters acted in a wanton and reckless manner or that the fire truck was operated in a way that was ”willful and wanton misconduct.” The Fifth District Court of Appeals reversed on appeal, saying the “willful and wanton” and “wanton and reckless” standards in the two statutes were functionally equivalent. And because reasonable minds could find that the firefighters’ actions were reckless, they and the city may not be immune from the lawsuit.
On appeal, the city and the two firefighters argued that “willful,” “wanton” and “reckless” all set slightly different standards of care, and thus the city cannot be held liable on a recklessness standard. Furthermore, they argued that the individual firefighters were not wanton or reckless. The Ohio Supreme Court agreed that all three words had slightly different meanings, but declined to end the case on that basis. “Willful” implies intent to deviate from duty; “wanton” conduct is failure to take care when the probability of harm is high; and “reckless” conduct is conscious disregard of an obvious risk. Having thus clarified the terms, the court affirmed the Fifth District’s ruling as modified and remanded the case to trial court for further proceedings.
As a St. Louis tractor-trailer accident lawyer, I’m interested to see a rare truck accident case involving a municipality. As this family learned, suing a government agency is not like suing a private company or individual. Governments have what’s called “sovereign immunity,” which is a way of saying they are only liable for lawsuits under certain circumstances. Those circumstances usually include the conditions set out by the Ohio Supreme Court: a government agency or its employee was reckless, wanton or willful. (Or sometimes negligent.) As a result, people who were hit by a large vehicle belonging to a government agency have more work to do before they can sue, generally including exhausting an administrative process or filing extra paperwork. Because this can be confusing and the deadlines are often very short, it’s vital to talk to a southern Illinois big rig accident attorney as early as possible in your case.
Carey, Danis & Lowe represents families that have lost a loved one or suffered a serious injury because of a trucking accident caused by carelessness. If you believe your crash could have been averted and you’d like to talk to us about your rights and legal options, send us a message online or call today at 1-877-678-3400.
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