T.C.A. § 55-8-108 allows the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle responding to an emergency call, pursuing a suspected law violator, or responding to a fire alarm when the vehicle is making use of an audible and visual signal to:
- disregard parking and standing regulations;
- proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation;
- exceed speed limits as long as life or property is not thereby endangered; and
- disregard movement and turning regulations.
While parked or standing, an authorized emergency vehicle must use only visual signals.
The same statute provides that these provisions "shall not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons, nor shall such provisions protect the driver from the consequences of the driver’s own reckless disregard for the safety of others."
This statute also limits the liability of law enforcement officers and their employing governments for injuries to both suspected law violators and to innocent third parties arising from their pursuit of fleeing suspected law violators, in the following language:
Notwithstanding the requirement of this section that drivers of authorized emergency vehicles exercise due regard for the safety of all persons, no municipality or county ... nor their officers or employees shall be liable for any injury proximately or indirectly caused to an actual or suspected violator of a law or ordinance who is fleeing pursuit by law enforcement personnel. The fact that law enforcement personnel pursue an actual or suspected violator of a law or ordinance who flees from such pursuit shall not render the law enforcement personnel or his or their employers liable for injuries to a third party proximately caused by the fleeing party unless the law enforcement personnel were negligent in his or their conduct, and such negligence was a proximate cause of the injuries to the third party.
However, under Haynes v. Hamilton County, 883 S.W.2d 606 (Tenn. 1994), the above limitation on the liability of law enforcement officers and their employing governments in third-party injury cases is quite narrow. There, the Tennessee Supreme Court pointed out that while the above limitations on liability provided absolute immunity to local governments for the injury or death of a fleeing suspect, they did not necessarily have the same effect with respect to innocent third parties injured in police pursuits. The court said that in those cases, negligent "conduct" within the meaning of that statute could include the police officer’s decision to initiate or to continue the pursuit. The determination of whether such a decision is reasonable must weigh the risk of injury to the third party against the interest in apprehending suspects. "Factors relevant to that determination include the speed and area of the pursuit, weather and road conditions, the presence or absence of pedestrians and other traffic, alternative methods of apprehension, applicable police regulations, and the danger posed to the public by the suspect being pursued." Those factors are not exclusive, continued the court, and "overall, a police officer’s conduct should be viewed in light of how a reasonable, prudent police officer would respond under the circumstances and not judged with the perfect vision afforded by hindsight."
Municipal hot-pursuit policies should be drafted, and police officers should initiate and continue hot pursuits with Haynes in mind.
Failure to Yield to Emergency Vehicles
Failure to yield to an approaching emergency vehicle or failure to move over or slow down for a stopped emergency vehicle is a Class B misdemeanor (T.C.A. § 55-8-132). Therefore, municipal ordinances regulating these offenses are invalid and unenforceable. See T.C.A. § 16-18-302.