Liability for bystander injury during police chase

police chase

On December 14, 2013, a 30-year mother of 3 was killed in Compton, California when her car was hit by another vehicle that was being pursued by police.   In September, a 32-year old man was walking with friends in Chicago when he was hit and killed by a car driven by a 17-year old boy who was fleeing from the police.   A South Carolina car accident attorney reports that according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nearly 360 people are killed every year in car accidents that occur during police-related pursuits. About 35%-40% of all police chases end in crashes.  When it comes to a fleeing suspect, police officers face a dilemma.  Risk a fleeing suspect committing more crimes, or risk bystanders being injured during a chase of the suspect.  In the wake of bystanders being injured or killed during police chases, some law enforcement agencies have changed their policies on police chases.  For example, in early 2010 Milwaukee changed its policy after four people were killed by drivers fleeing police in three separate incidents. Milwaukee police must now have probable cause that a violent felony has occurred before initiating a chase.  Whether the police have probable cause or not, bystanders are still injured.  As with any other occasion when someone is accidentally injured, that person should have the right to seek damages from the party at fault.

Suing the Suspect

When a suspect who is driving is chased by police, the suspect is typically not obeying traffic laws.  In general, drivers must operate their vehicles in a manner that will not cause other drivers, pedestrians or cyclists harm.  If a fleeing suspect is not following the rules of the road, that person is reckless and negligent.  Thus, if a suspect exceeds the speed limit or does not stop at red lights, and as a  result injures someone, that suspect was negligent and can be held liable.

Suing the Police Department

Law enforcement officials typically have broad discretion to carry out their duties.  In most cases it takes more than a finding of negligence for a court to conclude that the police were liable for bystander injury.  However, jurisdictions differ on this issue.  For example, a Utah statute specifically allows emergency vehicles to disregard traffic laws when proceeding to an emergency or pursuing a suspect.  However, the Utah Supreme Court concluded that even though officials are exempted from certain traffic laws, they still owe a duty to not just bystanders, but also suspects to drive in a reasonable manner.  Failure to do so may result in liablity.

In Milwaukee police officers must have probable cause before they can commence a police chase.  Thus, if an officer chases who he or she believes to be a fleeing suspect, but it ultimately turns out that there was not probable cause, an injured bystander would have a stronger case against the police department than if there was probable cause.

Similarly, California officers enjoy limited immunity for injuries to bystanders as a result of a chase.  Before an officer can commence a chase the officer must determine that the risk presented by not apprehending the suspect right away outweighs the risk of a chase.  Courts will likely defer to the judgment of the officer for the risk assessment, making it difficult for bystanders to prevail in a lawsuit against a California law enforcement agency.

While it is understandable why an injured bystander should be able to recover damages from a law enforcement agency, what is the argument that a fleeing suspect should be able to recover damages?  After all, if the suspect does not flee, the injury does not occur.

Mounier, A. 2013, Liability for bystander injury during police chase.

Tags: Personal Injury, Car Accident, Premise Liability,