Police officers are tasked with the difficult job of keeping the public safe. In doing so, there are sometimes calculated risks that must be made. A prime example of this is in the decision whether to initiate pursuit of a suspect, or decline to give chase, given the danger such action might pose to the innocent public.
While many police agencies – Boston included – have clear directives for pursuit of a suspect, mistakes are still made. Here, the police department expressly forbids chases unless the occupants are known for being wanted in the commission of a violent or life-threatening felony or are operating the vehicle in a manner that poses a threat of public harm if not stopped immediately.
Unfortunately, our Boston car accident lawyers know protocol isn’t always followed, and sometimes it results in serious or fatal crashes.
One such case was recently reviewed in Mississippi, where a chase resulted in a crash that killed one person and left two others severely injured. The question in City of Jackson v. Lewis was whether the police agency was responsible for the wrongful death of the woman killed when the suspect, trying to elude police, smashed into a vehicle in which she was a passenger.
These cases are complex for a number of reasons. One is that because police fall under the umbrella of government workers, it must first be established that the actions of the officers were outside the scope of duty. This could mean showing their actions violated departmental policy or were in reckless disregard for the safety and well-being of persons not involved in criminal conduct. There may also be issues of vicarious liability regarding whether the officer or officers in question were appropriately trained by the department to be able to handle such situations.
In the Jackson case, it began when police established a sobriety checkpoint one summer evening in 2001. Officers observed an approaching vehicle quickly shut off his headlights and make a u-turn in an apparent effort to avoid the roadblock.
Officers followed him, slowly at first. Suddenly, the suspect “punched it,” increasing the speed in an apparent effort to flee. An officer radioed to his sergeant that he was pursuing the suspect in violation of a traffic ordinance. The sergeant instructed the officer to terminate the pursuit. The officer testified he turned off his lights and sirens and slowed down, but did not stop trailing the suspect. He lost sight of him for a few minutes. He indicated that the next time he saw the vehicle, it had been involved in a wreck. The suspect vehicle had run a red light and slammed into the plaintiff’s car.
The victim’s estate filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city, alleging negligence on the part of the officer who engaged in a chase following a minor traffic violation. Following a 2008 bench trial, the court assessed 100 percent fault to the city, and entered a judgment in favor of the plaintiff.
However, that $700,000 verdict was reversed by the appellate court, which determined the officers had not acted recklessly. Therefore, the court held police were shielded by governmental immunity.
Upon review from the state supreme court, that ruling was reversed. The appellate court misinterpreted some of the factors used to determine recklessness by law enforcement, the high court found. Further, the appellate court improperly weighed certain evidence upon appeal and substituted its own judgment for the trial court’s on certain elements of expert witness testimony.
The $700,000 verdict in favor of the plaintiff was reinstated.
If you are injured in an accident in Massachusetts, call the Law Offices of Jeffrey S. Glassman for a free and confidential appointment — 1-888-367-2900.
City of Jackson v. Lewis, June 5, 2014, Mississippi Supreme Court
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