A disturbing number of individuals each year are seriously injured or killed as a result of high speed police pursuits. In the majority of the cases, those injured or killed are innocent pedestrians or other drivers. In many cases, the harmed parties are entitled to compensation. A variety of legal claims maybe appropriate including constitutional claims as well as standard tort actions.
Most states have enacted statutes waiving governmental immunity in police pursuit cases. For example, the District of Columbia has waived the defense of sovereign immunity for the negligent operation of a police vehicle. See D.C. Code §2-412 (2001). However, this waiver of liability is limited. More specifically, the District of Columbia cannot be held liable for claims arising out of the operation of a police car on an emergency run unless the officer driving the car acted with gross negligence. Gross negligence has been defined to require an extreme deviation from the ordinary standard of care as to support a finding of wanton, willful and reckless disregard or conscious indifference for the rights and safety of others.
Courts will consider a variety of factors when deciding whether the officer’s actions constituted gross negligence. These factors may include:
- evidence of subjective bad faith on the part of the driver;
- length of chase;
- type of neighborhood;
- characteristics of street or roadway;
- presence of vehicular or pedestrian traffic;
- weather conditions and visibility; and
- seriousness of the offense for which pursuit is undertaken.
Courts in alternative jurisdictions may apply a different set of standards when examining a police officer’s conduct. It is important to consult an attorney immediately to determine whether a valid legal claim may exist. For more information on traffic safety, please visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website.