High-speed driving and even pursuits are an especially dangerous part of police work. This is why many states, including Florida, have laws barring officers from acting with reckless disregard for the safety of others – regardless of the circumstances (F.S. 316.072(5)(c)).
That said, establishing liability for injuries or death resulting from a police pursuit may prove challenging. It will depend on the circumstances. When innocent civilian drivers or pedestrians suffer personal injury or are killed as a result of a reckless or ill-advised high-speed pursuit, the chances of securing compensation are optimum.
However, if plaintiff or decedent was in any way involved in the pursuit, the case may prove more difficult.
In the recent case of Sellers v. Twp. of Abington, the issue was whether officers owed a duty of care to passengers inside a fleeing vehicle when officers may not be aware of either passengers’ existence or potential involvement in eluding.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled officers do not owe a duty of care to passengers of a fleeing vehicle in these circumstances.
According to court records, this case stemmed from a tragic drunk driving accident following a police pursuit. A man spend Christmas Even drinking with a group of friends before two asked if he could drive them home.
One passenger sat in front, another in back. None wore seat belts. Driver admitted he was drunk when he left the gathering, and even conceded it was not the first time he had driven friends home drunk.
Driver stated while he was speeding 15-mph over the limit, he noticed a police cruiser pass him in the other direction. The police vehicle made a U-turn, began following him and activated lights and sirens.
Instead of pulling over, the “scared” drunk driver fled. He “floored” the gas pedal, reaching speeds of over 100 mph.
They seemingly lost the cruiser and made it to the home of one of the passengers. However, as they began to say their good-byes, driver noticed police lights reflected in the windows of nearby homes. Before the passenger could get out, driver shut off his headlights and “floored it” out of the driveway down the road.
Both passengers urged the driver to slow down because there was an upcoming dip in the road. Driver did not slow down. He hit the dip, lost control of the vehicle, the vehicle went airborne and crashed into a cluster of trees and a truck. One of the passengers was ejected and later died from his injuries.
Decedent’s parents filed a wrongful death action against the township for negligence of officers and seeking punitive damages. They accused officers of negligently, recklessly and willfully initiating and failing to terminate a high-speed pursuit of a vehicle.
After the discovery phase, defendant township sought summary judgment, which trial court granted. Trial court reasoned the township was immune from such action per the principle of sovereign immunity. Additionally, the court ruled the responding officer acted reasonably throughout the incident.
An appellate court affirmed.
The state supreme court held that while police owe a duty of care to innocent third parties in such situations, this same duty of care does not extend to “unknown passengers” of a fleeing vehicle.
With no duty of care, negligence cannot be established and thus, plaintiff’s case was dismissed.
A dissenting opinion did reason summary judgment in this instance was inappropriate where there had been no factual finding as to the officer’s awareness of the passengers.
The bottom line is these cases may generally be weighed on a case-by-case basis.
Consult with an experienced injury lawyer before determining your course of action.
Freeman Injury Law — 1-800-561-7777 for a free appointment to discuss your rights.
Sellers v. Twp. of Abington, Dec. 29, 2014, Pennsylvania Supreme Court
More Blog Entries:
Giles v. Eagle Farms, Inc. – Intoxication as Bar to Recovery in On-the-Job Crash, Dec. 15, 2014, Fort Lauderdale Car Accident Lawyer Blog