Have you ever wondered what standard of care drivers of emergency vehicles are supposed to maintain when responding to an urgent situation?  Does it seem like emergency vehicles are above the law?

The recent case of Donald MacLeod (by his Deputy and Litigation Friend, Barbara MacLeod) and Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis [2014] EWHC 977 (QB) provides insight into the standard of care which the police are required to adhere to.

The claimant, Donald MacLeod, 59 years old was a keen cyclist who cycled both for pleasure at the weekends and to work on a daily basis. On 24 March 2010, whilst returning home after meeting a friend for a drink, he was wearing a helmet, high-visibility jacket and his bicycle lights were illuminated. At about 9pm, on approaching a mini-roundabout at the junction of Southgate Road and Northchurch Road, Mr MacLeod’s bicycle and a police car responding to a 999 call collided.  As a result, Mr MacLeod was left with very significant injuries such that he needs 24-hour care.  

The legal framework which applies as found in the authority case of Marshall v Osmond [1983] QB 1074 states that the duty on the driver of the police car is to drive with such care and skill as is reasonable in all the circumstances. He owes a duty of care to a claimant notwithstanding the fact that he is responding to an emergency.

As with most negligence cases, the burden is on the claimant to prove that a defendant, on the balance of probabilities, breached a duty owed to the claimant  doing what he was doing and that but for that breach the damages would not have occurred.

The fact that an emergency vehicle is displaying adequate warnings is an important factor in deciding whether a breach of duty has occurred. In the case of Keyse v The Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis [2001] EWCA (Civ) 715, it was stated that “the driver of an emergency vehicle is normally entitled to assume that other road users will not ignore the unmistakable evidence of its approach and where appropriate, temporarily at any rate, will use the road accordingly.” “ If drivers in the emergency services were not allowed to drive their vehicles on the basis that pedestrians would recognise their warning lights and sirens and give them proper priority by keeping out of their paths” it would inhibit the valuable work done for the community as a whole.

In the case of Smith v Chief Constable of Nottinghamshire Police [2012] EWCA (Civ) 161 the principles in Keyse were also discussed but it was stressed that each case must be judged on its own particular facts and circumstances.  In addition, the case stressed the importance of the Police Driver and Vehicle Policy which clearly sets out the expectations of what is to be regarded as a reasonable standard. The relevant terms include: “the aim for all drivers within the MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] should be that they drive in a manner that will not lead to them being involved in any collision and if they are, it should not be their fault.” 

In Mr MacLeod’s case, the judge found that the police car was quite simply travelling too fast in poor lighting conditions and visibility and the driver failed to keep a proper lookout. It was highly likely the driver of the police car and his front passenger colleague failed to see Mr MacLeod ahead of them.

The physical damage to the bicycle and to the police car indicated that the initial point of contact occurred between the right handlebar and the front left side panel of the police car. Continued contacts along the side of the car, provided evidence that the damage occurred whilst both the cyclist and the police car were travelling north, despite the police’s allegation that Mr MacLeod had emerged from Northchurch Road into the path of the police car. 

At the point where Mr MacLeod was hit the road narrowed and there was a speed table. The driver of the police car had two points imposed on his police permit for failing to make any allowance for the table top traffic calming device just prior to the junction and it was assessed that he had limited vision as he approached the junction and had failed to anticipate the approach of any vehicle on his nearside. 

The judge concluded on the balance of probabilities that Mr MacLeod was cycling northwards up Southgate Road in the period immediately prior to the collision.  He was therefore there to be seen by the police car driver, who was quite plainly driving contrary to the Police’s own policy. The manner of his driving plainly fell below an acceptable standard and he failed to drive with such care and skill as was reasonable in all the circumstances.  His speed was high and consistent with his desire to get to the rendezvous point as his priority rather than safely. The reality was that he would have arrived at the rendezvous point within the expected response time if he had driven to the speed limit. But for the breach of duty the injury to Mr MacLeod would not have occurred. 

The judge also concluded that there was no element of contributory negligence on the part of Mr MacLeod. At the point where he was the road had narrowed and he would have contravened the Highway Code had he ridden on the pavement. Mr MacLeod could not be criticised for failing to take emergency measures to avoid the impact in the circumstances notwithstanding the police car’s siren and blues and twos were activated. 

Mr MacLeod’s injuries were caused as a result of the negligence of the police car driver and he will now be entitled to substantial compensation.  It is clear that emergency services are still expected to take reasonable care and skill in all the circumstances, even when responding to emergencies with their blues and twos activated.