Be Careful Crossing Streets in Wisconsin

Good news for volunteer firefighters, bad news for people who use the roads.

In Wisconsin, if someone drives through a red light and hits you, you generally have a right to have a jury decide who was at fault and what expenses the at fault party should pay.  According to a May 30, 2012 case however, if the person who hits you is a volunteer firefighter performing a "discretionary act," by going through a red light with lights on but no siren, then nothing else matters and you get nothing. It does not matter who was at fault.  If you don’t have health insurance and the volunteer firefigher who hit you while running the red light caused $100,000 in medical bills, you cannot collect from him or his insurance company regardless of fault.  This is true even if you were 0% at fault for the collision.  This is true even though there is a Wisconsin State Statute that says a firefighter cannot proceed through a red light without both lights and a siren.

What does this have to do with biking?  The message is clear, if you live anywhere near a volunteer fire department, you should double or triple check cars and trucks approaching intersections and do not expect them to have any siren.  Assume cars and trucks will proceed through red lights.  Do not assume since you have a green light that you have the right of way.  Remember if you are injured or killed in a collision with a firefighter, it does not matter who is at fault.  In the above case, the court found that even though the firefighter had no audible siren (and Wisconsin Statues require both lights and siren) he still had immunity despite the law requiring a light and siren.  That tends to show that a firefighter who goes through a red light with no lights or siren would likely also have immunity as long as the judges found that going through the red light was "discretionary." 

Since immunity is a legal issue, it is decided by Judges and not a jury.  Thus, as long as a judge/judges agree that the action that caused injury was "discretionary" then the injured person has no right to have a jury hear the case.

When weighing the benefit of a volunteer firefighter traveling through a red light with no siren (and likley no specialized driving training unlike police) against the right of injured people to have a jury decide who was at fault and make them whole for their losses, it is clear that the minimal time saved in running the red light is outweighed by the miscarriage of justice to the people who get injured through no fault of their own.  Either volunteer firefighters should not run red lights in personal vehicles with no sirens [this should be left to full size well marked trucks with sirens] or they should be held to the same standard as everyone else- were they acting as a reasonable person when the injuries occured.  Obviously, if there was a jury trial on the issue, the volunteer firefighter could make the argument to the jury of why he needed to speed through a red light [he was going to save someone etc.] and the jury would consider that in determining fault.  In the case above, the volunteer firefighter was not traveling to the scene of an incident, but was reporting to the station.

Something to keep in mind is that Wisconsin judges, unlike juries, are either elected or appointed by the Governor. 

Wis. Stat. 346.03:

(2) The operator of an authorized emergency vehicle may:
(a) Stop, stand or park, irrespective of the provisions of this chapter;
(b) Proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation;
(c) Exceed the speed limit;
(d) Disregard regulations governing direction of movement or turning in specified directions.

(3) The exemption granted the operator of an authorized emergency vehicle by sub. (2) (a) applies only when the operator of the vehicle is giving visual signal by means of at least one flashing, oscillating or rotating red light except that the visual signal given by a police vehicle may be by means of a blue light and a red light which are flashing, oscillating or rotating, except as otherwise provided in sub. (4m). The exemptions granted by sub. (2) (b), (c) and (d) apply only when the operator of the emergency vehicle is giving both such visual signal and also an audible signal by means of a siren or exhaust whistle, except as otherwise provided in sub. (4) or (4m).

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