Skip to content

We have all generally come across Road Traffic Accident cases involving an emergency response vehicle which was travelling enroute to an “alleged” emergency response call i.e under blue light conditions). However, these cases are usually few and far between in contrast to the bulk of normal road traffic litigation where the usual common law principles and provisions of the Highway Code apply.

In practical terms, if it is accepted that these cases are more the exception in contrast to the rule, is there an actual understanding as to how the issue of liability should be assessed in these cases and how liability is determined by the court when these cases get to trial?

In order to answer those questions, we need to consider the starting point of any liability assessment for cases involving emergency response vehicles.

The legislation governing this area is found under the Road Traffic Regulations Act 1984 and the Traffic Signs Regulations & General Directions (2002)

The 3 main exemptions afforded to emergency response drivers are;

  • Travelling at excess speed
  • Overtaking on the wrong side of a keep left bollard
  • Proceeding through a junction controlled by a red traffic light

The most commonly cited decision relied upon by all Ambulance, Police and Fire Authorities is the Court of Appeal decision in Griffen v Mersey Regional Ambulance (1997). This case law essentially represents the best outcome position for emergency response drivers as it was decided on a 60/40 split in favour of the emergency response driver. In Griffen, the accident circumstances involved a driver who had passed through a green traffic light at a large crossroads junction and collided with an ambulance. On appeal the driver was held 60 per cent contributorily negligent although importantly, the driver in this case (Mr Griffen) had failed to both hear and see the ambulance whilst also ignoring the unusual driving of other motorists who had stopped for the ambulance progressing across the crossroads junction.

Although the decision was made with reference to the governing legislation at the time (Section 33 (2) of TSGDR (1994)) which provided for the exemption (i.e travelling through a junction in contravention of a red light), there were no driving policies referred to during trial. The NHS Trust’s procedure of ensuring that employees followed their driver training and the driving policy issued by the NHS Trust were not considered. Moreover, the Judge presiding over the hearing placed heavy emphasis on rule 76 of the Highway Code which stated ‘Look and listen for ambulances … or other emergency vehicles with flashing blue lights or sirens’ which ultimately accounted for the 60% contributory element on the part of Mr Griffen.

Since Griffen, what is known is that the case law and decisions have shifted significantly against the Ambulance, Police and Fire Authorities with particular emphasis being placed on examination of the driving policies in place within those organisations which dictate the manner and procedure under which emergency response drivers are to justify the use of the exemptions.

It is important to also deal with the guidance provided to all emergency response drivers as per their respective training manuals (DTAG Emergency Ambulance Response Handbook for Ambulance Drivers) and The Roadcraft Manual for Police officers which also covers the training standard for the Fire Authority. Essentially the message to all emergency response drivers is that

“No emergency, no matter how serious, will justify causing an accident”

Despite this the number of cases involving emergency response vehicles are continuing to be litigated upon with the same liability issues and arguments spanning back to Griffen.

In practice, what we are now seeing is that the Courts are mindful of the fact that the assessment of liability in emergency response litigation is significantly different to that of normal road traffic litigation. This is because   (i) The NHS Trust / Police / Fire Authority in the first instance  must prove that the use of exemptions were justified (i.e progressing through a red light, excessive use of speed and travelling around the right of a bollard) and (ii) that even if the use exemptions were justified, that the correct procedure was adopted by the emergency response driver in accordance with their blue light training and driving policy issued by their employer.

Also, with the advancement of technology and risk assessment being at the forefront of any internal investigations, most emergency response vehicles are now fitted with dashcam and telemetry data which are discoverable documents and should be scrutinised carefully before making any decision on liability.

Our experience from recent county court decisions is that these Public Authorities are being found wholly at fault for the collision and therefore handling such cases pre and post litigation requires considerable examination before settling on a 40/60 basis pursuant to Griffen.

Has the legal landscape therefore moved on since Griffen? If it is still being referred to and relied upon as the ultimate Defence position for emergency response authorities to achieve a 60/40 split, then a re-examination of the position is certainly required by Claimants. Based on the recent County Court decisions we have seen and the court’s willingness to go beyond the Highway Code and examine the policies and procedures the emergency response authorities have in place and are required to follow; our view is that is has.

If you have been involved in an accident with an emergency response vehicle or would like some further advice in this area, please contact Perminder Devgun, Partner and specialist in emergency response litigation.