Nine years ago, a high school driver was struck by a speeding ambulance at a dangerous intersection outside of Norman. The crash changed her life, and the attorneys at Laird Hammons Laird have fought for justice for their client ever since. Not only did Laird Hammons Laird fight for their client, the Oklahoma Supreme Court opinion in Gowens v. NRH closed a loophole in state law that left ordinary Oklahomans vulnerable.
The Problem with the Law
Before Gowens v. NRH, government agencies were protected from having to pay for the actions of employees using lights and sirens — police officers, ambulance drivers, firefighters or other first responders. If you were hit by a government driver on duty, you were out of luck.
The problem is two lines of Oklahoma Supreme Court cases converged on an unexpected collision course not unlike that of the vehicles in question. In one case, the government agency was only liable if the plaintiff showed the first responder was reckless. But in another case, the government agency wasn’t liable if the first responder was reckless. Because of the Gowens case, a jury gets to decide if the government agency is responsible when a first responder is acting recklessly. Before this case, the plaintiff could only sue the driver, who wouldn’t necessarily be able to pay the medical bills and damages.
Reckless Driving Caused Major Injuries
The crash happened at a dangerous intersection east of Norman, less than two miles from Lake Thunderbird. An ambulance driver was responding to a call of a baby in distress on July 3, 2007, near Lake Thunderbird. As he sped east, the driver topped 70 mph as he flew down Alameda Street.
Elizabeth Gowens, then only 16 years old, was turning onto Alameda Street.
The ambulance driver testified he didn’t see Elizabeth until he was less than 10 feet away. He swerved toward her car and hit the driver’s side door. Both vehicles were damaged, and Elizabeth was badly hurt.
In the aftermath, Elizabeth had five surgeries to fix her broken leg and knee. She had skin grafts. She also needed painful rehabilitation and daily wound care. She had to keep her leg elevated 24 hours a day. Her dream of playing college softball was out of the question.
Elizabeth suffered emotionally, too. She couldn’t sleep. She had to rely on others for even the simplest tasks, like eating and showering. She felt scared and alone. At the height of her teenage years, Elizabeth felt left out from all the happenings at her high school.
Dangerous Intersection, Dangerous Driving
The intersection was notorious. In court, the ambulance driver described the intersection as an “optical illusion” because of the curve in the road and the blocked view. The police officer who responded to the crash testified he and others had made official complaints about the intersection. After the crash, the city of Norman even updated the intersection in hopes of preventing future tragedies.
Emergency vehicles, like ambulances and fire trucks, are allowed to drive faster than the speed limit only if the emergency lights are flashing and only if it isn’t dangerous to someone else. In this case, it was more than dangerous. Not only was the driver negligent, but he was reckless. He flew through an intersection he knew was dangerous, and Elizabeth was the one who paid the price for his choices.
Elizabeth sued the driver, the hospital and the ambulance company. She hired Chris Hammons and Jason Hicks to represent her. In court, Norman Regional Hospital wanted to blame everyone else, even Elizabeth, instead of taking responsibility for what happened that day. The hospital’s attorneys argued the hospital shouldn’t be held liable, even though their driver was working at the time of the crash. The group responded in court that Elizabeth was to blame and that the driver and everyone else were protected by the Governmental Tort Claims Act, which limits lawsuits against government entities.
At trial, the judge ruled in favor of Elizabeth because the court found the emergency vehicle driver to have been “negligent and reckless” for speeding through this particular intersection. The judge found that the ambulance driver was going too fast and that he was the cause of the wreck.
Continuing the Fight
NRH appealed that decision to the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals, which reversed the trial judge’s ruling. The Appeals Court said the hospital and its employees were protected from any lawsuit under the Governmental Tort Claims Act. Attorneys Chris Hammons and Jason Hicks believed that ruling wasn’t right. Their client had won at trial, and she deserved compensation. So they took the fight to the Oklahoma State Supreme Court. The Supreme Court agreed with Chris and Jason: Elizabeth was entitled to a fair compensation under the law.
The court said the ambulance driver was being reckless, and as an emergency responder, he had an even bigger responsibility to drive safely. Oklahoma law allowed the ambulance driver to go over the speed limit as long as he wasn’t endangering other people.
This case sends a message that dangerous driving will not be tolerated. No one — not even a paramedic — has the right to drive in a way that’s dangerous to others. If someone is hurt, that driver will be responsible.
If you need an attorney who’s in it for the long haul, call Laird Hammons Laird for a free consultation.