High-speed police chases make for exciting footage on local newscasts. They also pose a very real danger to the general public. When law enforcement officials make the decision to initiate or continue a chase, they must be mindful of other motorists on the road. If police recklessness leads to the injury or death of an innocent party, the government may be held accountable in court.
Wingler v. White
This is not to say that every personal injury claim arising from a police chase will be upheld in court. To the contrary, Georgia law sets strict limits on which such lawsuits may be heard. In order to get around the “sovereign immunity” of the state and its municipalities, Georgia courts have said that a victim must prove that his or her losses arose from the “negligent use” of a police vehicle where the officers “acted with reckless disregard for proper law enforcement procedures in pursuing a fleeing suspect.”
Here is a recent example when the courts held that a municipality could be held liable under this rule. This case arose from a 2013 incident involving two different county sheriff’s departments. A Lamar County deputy on traffic patrol observed a vehicle moving erratically between lanes on I-75. The deputy decided to initiate a traffic stop to cite the driver for “failure to maintain a lane of travel.”
The driver ignored the deputy’s flashing lights and decided to speed away. The Lamar deputy initiated a chase, which “quickly reached speeds of up to 120 to 125 miles per hour,” according to court records. Eventually, the chase continued into neighboring Monroe County, where three of its deputies joined the pursuit.
As the chase moved onto I-475, the Lamar deputy blew out a tire. The Monroe deputies continued pursuit, however, and the chase subsequently continued onto Highway 247. At this point, the fleeing driver ran a red light at an intersection and plowed into another vehicle, injuring two of its occupants, who are the plaintiffs in the present lawsuit.
The plaintiffs sued both the Lamar and Monroe County sheriffs, alleging that their recklessness in initiating and pursuing the traffic chase caused their injuries. A trial judge dismissed the lawsuit, granting summary judgment to both sheriffs. The Georgia Court of Appeals reversed that decision with respect to the Monroe County sheriff.
As the appeals court explained, Monroe County’s police procedures require officers to “carefully consider all factors involving possible consequences, and most importantly, the safety of the public,” when deciding whether to pursue a chase. In this case, the evidence indicates this was a “routine traffic stop” that quickly escalated. The police had already identified the driver’s vehicle, which “weighed in favor of discontinuing a pursuit,” since the police could track the driver down later. Ultimately, there was sufficient evidence from which a jury might reasonably conclude the Monroe deputies were negligent and therefore liable for the plaintiffs’ injuries.
As for the Lamar County sheriff’s office, the Court of Appeals said it was not liable at all because its deputy had dropped out of the chase before the accident involving the plaintiffs occurred. Since no Lamar sheriff’s vehicle was in “use” at that time, the law waiving sovereign immunity did not apply here.