Emergency responders – including police officers – are given an enormous responsibility to make it to emergencies quickly. However, there is also an expectation that they will do so as safely as possible.
These government workers are given a great deal of latitude in terms of liability, but only so long as they are acting within the scope of their employment and only as long as they are behaving reasonably under the circumstances.
Still, when the public is placed in jeopardy as a result of these actions, there may be grounds for litigation. The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates there are approximately 250,000 high speed chases annually. Of those, between 6,000 and 8,000 end in crashes, claiming the lives of 500 people and injuring some 5,000.
Courts have grappled over the years with how to handle claims that arise from such instances. For example, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled in the 1986 case of Cannon v. Taylor a person injured by a negligent police officer is not necessarily entitled to compensation for a constitutional violation. However, in another 1986 case before the U.S. Supreme Court, the court reasoned actions like vehicle ramming, roadblocks and intentional actions can rise to the level of a constitutional violation.
But again, any sovereign immunity protection conferred onto the government employee arises from the fact that his or her actions were in the course and scope of employment.
In the case of Browder v. City of Albuquerque, this was not the case. Here, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled the off-duty police officer who allegedly caused a fatal car crash on the way home from his shift was not entitled to qualified immunity.
According to court records, the sergeant had just finished his shift and was, in the words of the justices, “On one one’s business but his own.” He was on his way home, and apparently wanted to get there quickly. He turned on his emergency lights, drove at speeds exceeding 65 mph on city roads through 10 intersections and, at the eleventh, ignored the red traffic light and pressed on the gas.
He struck a vehicle. The result was one woman died while her sister was gravely injured.
The sergeant was charged criminally with reckless vehicular homicide.
Decedent’s parents then filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, seeking civil damages. The sergeant requested the court dismiss the complaint on grounds of qualified immunity. However, trial court denied this request, as did the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit.
The parents sued under, among other provisions, the 14th Amendment, which guarantees individuals will not be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process. The U.S. Supreme Court has taken this to mean these actions won’t be taken without procedural due process or without sufficient justification (substantive due process).
High court justices warned against applying this exception broadly, but in this case, the appellate court held, it was appropriate. The officer in this case, the court ruled, was not engaging in an action that bore a reasonable justification in the service of legitimate government business or objectives.
Instead, the court determined, the actions of the officer were “arbitrary” and “conscience shocking.”
As such, the officer was not entitled to statutory protections under qualified immunity.
Any civil case in which defendant is a government worker should only be handled by an experienced legal team, as there are often a host of special procedural requirements and proof burdens that must be met in order for the case to go to trial.
Call Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.
Browder v. City of Albuquerque, June 2, 2015, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit
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