Hit by a police car? Making a wrongful death or injury claim

Injury victims or their families may be able to file a personal injury claim or wrongful death lawsuit involving an accident with a police car. Liability may depend on whether the police officer was responding to an emergency, had on lights and sirens, or was driving negligently at the time of the accident.

Below, our California personal injury lawyers discuss the following frequently asked questions about accidents involving a police car in California:

If you have further questions after reading this article, we invite you to contact us at Shouse Law Group.

1. What happens if you are injured in an accident with a police car?

Auto accidents involving a police car are not like other car accidents. If a driver or pedestrian is hit by a police car in California, the driver may assume that the police have some kind of immunity. However, the police and the city can still be liable to an injured driver, passenger, or pedestrian for injuries caused in an accident with a patrol car.

After a car accident, anyone involved should make sure they are safe and ok. If there are any injuries, the victims should seek immediate medical attention. Even if the driver or passengers are not sure if they suffered any serious injury, they should still consider seeing a doctor. Many car accident victims don't think they were injured until a day or two after the accident.

Don't admit fault after an accident. This can be more difficult to do when the other driver is a cop, especially if the officer is trying to intimidate you. It is not up to the officer in the accident to decide who is at fault. The issue of who was at fault should be left up to the court after a review of all the evidence, not based on an officer's one-sided view.

The most important step after an accident with a police care may be to contact a car accident lawyer. Police car accidents are not handled like other car accidents. The police officer is generally covered by the city's insurance policy, not a regular auto insurance policy. The claims process may be different and the city may take a lot longer to review your claim. In these types of cases, injury victims need an advocate on their side to keep the pressure on the police to make sure the victims are compensated for their injuries.

2. Who is at fault in an accident involving a police car in California?

Fault is generally determined by which driver was negligent in a motor vehicle accident. If a driver runs a red light and hits another car, the driver who ran the red light may be at fault for the accident. However, what happens if a police officer runs a red light and hits another driver?

Injury claims for victims hit by police cars depend on what the police officer was doing at the time and how the officer was driving. If the police officer is determined to be negligent, then the injury victim may be able to recover damages for their injuries from the city or county.

Accidents caused by police officers generally involve some violation of a traffic law or a combination of violations. Common traffic violations that result in a patrol car accident include:

  • Speeding,1
  • Running a red light,2
  • Running a stop sign,3
  • Driving the wrong way on a divided roadway,4
  • Failure to yield the right-of-way,5
  • Illegal left turn or U-turn,6 or
  • Failure to signal 7.

If a driver is violating a traffic law and thereby causes an accident, the driver violating the law may be considered negligent. However, there is an “emergency vehicle exemption” in California that exempts emergency vehicles from normal traffic laws in certain situations.

Under California Vehicle Code 21055, the driver of an emergency vehicle may be exempt from certain traffic laws if the vehicle is being driven in response to an emergency call and is reasonably using the vehicle's lights and sirens.8

In order for a police officer to establish that he or she was not required to comply with a specific vehicle code, the officer must prove all of the following:

  1. The police officer was operating an authorized emergency vehicle;
  2. The police officer was responding to an emergency situation at the time of the accident; and
  3. The police officer sounded a siren when reasonably necessary and displayed front red warning lights.9

2.1. Was the officer responding to an emergency?

In order to be exempt from certain traffic laws, the officer has to be responding to an emergency. An “emergency” includes an officer who is:

  • Responding to an emergency call;
  • Involved in a rescue operation;
  • In the immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected law violator;
  • Responding to a fire alarm; or
  • Operating a fire department vehicle while traveling from one place to another because of an emergency call.10

A police officer doesn't get to claim that he doesn't have to follow the laws just because he or she is a cop. It is not considered an emergency if the officer is driving back from a call or is driving his or her personal car when there is no emergency.

Example: Officer Friday was about to return to the station at the end of his shift when he got a call. Officer Friday responded to an emergency call in Pico Rivera and responded at a high speed with lights and sirens. After arriving on the scene, Officer Friday was told it was a false alarm and to return to the station.

Officer Friday had plans that night and was worried he was going to be late, so he went a little faster than normal on the way home. At a yellow light, Officer Friday sped up to make the light and barely made it before it turned red. However, Officer Friday was going too fast and didn't have time to come to a full stop for the traffic ahead and hits June.

June suffered neck injuries from the rear-end collision. June claims Officer Friday was negligent because he was speeding at the time of the accident.

Officer Friday claimed an emergency vehicle exception because he was returning from an emergency call. However, the emergency vehicle exemption generally does not apply when returning from an emergency. Officer Friday may have been liable for the accident.

2.2. Did the patrol car have lights and sirens on?

The emergency exemption generally requires the vehicle to have lights and sirens on. This is a way to warn other drivers that an emergency vehicle is approaching and to pull over where possible. However, in some cases, an emergency vehicle is not required to use sirens. For example, depending on the local policies, some emergency vehicles don't use sirens when driving through neighborhoods or at night.

2.3. Was the police officer still negligent in causing the accident?

Even if a police officer was driving with lights and sirens and responding to an emergency, the officer could still be negligent in causing the accident. Under California's negligence laws, the negligent party is liable for any injuries and damages caused to other drivers, passengers, or pedestrians injured in the accident.

Failure to follow the duty of care when driving is negligence. The standard of care requires drivers, including police officers, to:

  • Use reasonable care in driving a vehicle;
  • Keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles; and
  • Control the speed and movement of the vehicle.11

3. Who has to pay for the damages in an accident involving the police?

Under California Vehicle Code 17001, “A public entity is liable for death or injury to person or property proximately caused by a negligent or wrongful act or omission in the operation of any motor vehicle by an employee of the public entity acting within the scope of his employment.”

When a police officer is driving a patrol car or driving on the job and causes an accident, the public entity is liable to the injured parties for damages. Depending on the law enforcement agency, the state, county, or city could be liable to pay for damages in the accident.

The damages in a serious accident can reach tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. Economic and non-economic compensatory damages can include:

4. Can I file a claim if my spouse was killed in a police car accident?

Under California's wrongful death laws, a family member may be able to file a lawsuit against the public entity after the death of a loved one. If a child, spouse, or parent was killed in an accident with a police car, the surviving family members may be able to hold the responsible party liable for damages.13

Damages in a wrongful death lawsuit include:

  • Funeral expenses,
  • Burial expenses,
  • Loss of earnings the deceased would have earned, and
  • Compensation to the family for the loss of the loved one.

5. Should I hire a lawyer for an accident involving a police car?

Police car accidents are much more complicated than regular car accident claims. Claims involving city or state employees have a different claims process and can take much longer to resolve. There are also the frustrations that go along with dealing with any government agency, like struggling to get ahold of the right person to give you a straight answer.

When an injury victim is dealing with physical recovery, getting back to work, and taking care of vehicle repairs, the last thing they have time to deal with is government bureaucracy. Instead of trying to handle a serious accident claim alone, hiring the right personal injury lawyer will mean the injury victims and their families can rest assured knowing they are in good hands.

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Call us for help...

For questions about injury accidents involving a police car in California or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our skilled California personal injury attorneys, please contact us at Shouse Law Group.

We have local law offices in and around Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.


Legal References:

  1. California Vehicle Code 22350 (“No person shall drive a vehicle upon a highway at a speed greater than is reasonable or prudent having due regard for weather, visibility, the traffic on, and the surface and width of, the highway, and in no event at a speed which endangers the safety of persons or property.”). See also California Vehicle Code 22348-22349.
  2. California Vehicle Code 21453 - failure to stop at a red light.
  3. California Vehicle Code 22450.
  4. California Vehicle Code 21651.
  5. California Vehicle Code 21804.
  6. California Vehicle Code 21801
  7. California Vehicle Code 22107.
  8. California Vehicle Code 21055 (“The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle is exempt from Chapter 2 (commencing with Section 21350), Chapter 3 (commencing with Section 21650), Chapter 4 (commencing with Vehicle Code Section 21800), Chapter 5 (commencing with Vehicle Code Section 21950), Chapter 6 (commencing with Vehicle Code 22100), Chapter 7 (commencing with Section 22348), Chapter 8 (commencing with Section 22450), Chapter 9 (commencing with Section 22500), and Chapter 10 (commencing with Section 22650) of this division, and Article 3 (commencing with Section 38305) and Article 4 (commencing with Section 38312) of Chapter 5 of Division 16.5, under all of the following conditions: (a) If the vehicle is being driven in response to an emergency call or while engaged in rescue operations or is being used in the immediate pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law or is responding to, but not returning from, a fire alarm, except that fire department vehicles are exempt whether directly responding to an emergency call or operated from one place to another as rendered desirable or necessary by reason of an emergency call and operated to the scene of the emergency or operated from one fire station to another or to some other location by reason of the emergency call. (b) If the driver of the vehicle sounds a siren as may be reasonably necessary and the vehicle displays a lighted red lamp visible from the front as a warning to other drivers and pedestrians. A siren shall not be sounded by an authorized emergency vehicle except when required under this section.”)
  9. California Civil Jury Instructions ("CACI") 730.
  10. California Civil Jury Instructions ("CACI") 731.
  11. CACI 400. Negligence.
  12. CACI 700. Basic Standard of Care. (“A person must use reasonable care in driving a vehicle. Drivers must keep a lookout for pedestrians, obstacles, and other vehicles. They must also control the speed and movement of their vehicles. The failure to use reasonable care in driving a vehicle is negligence.“)
  13. California Code of Civil Procedure 377.60 (“A cause of action for the death of a person caused by the wrongful act or neglect of another may be asserted by any of the following persons or by the decedent's personal representative on their behalf: (a) The decedent's surviving spouse, domestic partner, children, and issue of deceased children, or, if there is no surviving issue of the decedent, the persons, including the surviving spouse or domestic partner, who would be entitled to the property of the decedent by intestate succession.”)

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