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Appeals Court Rules Atlanta Police’s High-Speed Chase is Not a Public “Nuisance”

High-speed police chases may look exciting on the local news, but they often have deadly consequences for innocent bystanders. In many cases, police and local officials are held blameless by the courts due to the doctrine of sovereign immunity. Recently, the Georgia Court of Appeals elaborated on the standards required for holding police accountable (or not accountable) in such cases.

City of Atlanta v. McCrary

In early 2008, two Atlanta police officers attempted to stop a vehicle with improper tags. The driver sped away, and the officers pursued the vehicle. There is some dispute over what happened next. The officers said they broke off pursuit after determining a continued chase would violate Atlanta Police Department regulations. The driver, in contrast, said he “never lost sight of the police” and continued to evade them. In any event, the driver eventually collided with a third vehicle, killing the passenger in his vehicle as well as the driver of the other car.

The estates of both victims sued the City of Atlanta. They argued the officers were negligent in initiating the chase, and that the city “maintained a nuisance” by failing to properly supervise its police and enforcing its policies governing the use of high-speed chases. The City agreed to pay up to $700,000 for the officer’s “negligent use” of his police car, but argued sovereign immunity barred any further liability. A trial court disagreed, and denied the City’s motion for summary judgment on those terms.

On July 16 of this year, a divided Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s ruling and granted the City summary judgment. Judge William M. Ray, II, writing for the majority, said the plaintiffs presented no “evidentiary link” connecting the Atlanta Police Department’s training or enforcement regarding high-speed chases and the accident that killed the victims. In order to qualify as a “nuisance,” Judge Ray said, there must be evidence of “a continuous or regularly repetitious act or condition which causes injury,” which he said was not the case here.

Judge Christopher J. McFadden disagreed, and was the lone judge to dissent from Judge Ray’s opinion. Judge McFadden argued there was enough evidence to allow a jury to infer that “high speed police pursuits — whether proper or improper under the policy — are dangerous and have proven so in [Atlanta].” He said there was evidence that showed police officials “neither informed the officers of when they could engage in high speed pursuits under the policy nor held their officers accountable for complying with the policy.”

In response to Judge McFadden, Judge Ray said the majority declined to “infer multiple links where no evidence supports them.” Nevertheless, Judge Ray did criticize the Atlanta Police Department for its “incomplete reporting” of data regarding high-speed police chases. He reiterated there was insufficient evidence to show a pattern of dangerous conduct that would allow a jury to find the City maintained a “dangerous condition” or “nuisance.”