WHO IS RESPONSIBLE WHEN AN INNOCENT PERSON IS INJURED IN A HIGH-SPEED CHASE?

Serving nearby areas by Palm Beach and West Palm Beach, Florida

High-speed police chases make movies more exciting. We get an adrenaline rush and a sense of dramatic urgency when we see portrayals of police doing everything it takes to take down the bad guys. In real life, though, there can be serious consequences from police chases.

 

A high-speed car chase carries with it the obvious risk that the fleeing suspect or police officers will crash their cars and get injured. It also carries the risk that they will crash into innocent civilians. This risk is not hypothetical – it has been known to happen in Florida.

 

When this happens, who is responsible for paying the medical bills and physical damage?  Obviously, the person running from the police bears a great deal of responsibility, but unsurprisingly, this person is unlikely to have insurance coverage or assets to cover the losses.

 

What about police departments’ liability for injuries? The answer under Florida law is more complicated than you might think.

 

First, there is no question that the police will not be liable if they acted completely reasonably. Police departments, just like normal citizens, are not liable for injuries unless they have caused the injuries through the failure to use reasonable care – in other words, they can’t be liable if they weren’t negligent.

 

But let’s assume there’s reason to call into question whether the police took all appropriate precautions in the chase. Maybe there were no sirens, so other motorists couldn’t hear a police car quickly approaching. And maybe it was unwise to begin the chase in the first place.

 

Florida statutes provide that a driver of a law enforcement vehicle may “exceed maximum speed limits so long as the driver does not endanger life or property”. Florida Statutes § 316.072(5)(b)3. Although law enforcement officers get special permission to speed when necessary, the law does not “relieve the driver … from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons.” Section 316.072(5)(c).

 

For this reason, one Florida appeals court has observed that “pursuing officers do not have carte blanche authority to pursue in any manner they choose, whether or not an emergency exists.”  Brown v. Pinellas Park, 557 So.2d 161, 169 n.4 (Fla. 2d DCA 1990). Our Supreme Court later reviewed that case and criticized the particular law enforcement agency that made the decision to chase a driver whose only offense was that he ran a red light. The Court said that this chase was “an enormous overreaction . . . one reminiscent of the most violent, daredevil films that Hollywood stunt men have produced.”  Pinellas Park v. Brown, 604 So.2d 1222 (Fla. 1992).

 

The Court went on:

 

Were there no more reasonable means of vindicating Florida’s law against running a red light than this? Surely there is only one answer to this question. The police simply could have taken the violators license-plate number together with a description of the car and driver, and then stopped the pursuit. Later, the violator could be located in some less dangerous setting, arrested, and brought to justice. And even if he continued to elude police, surely everyone must agree that this result is far better than the deaths of innocent persons. In the balance, the desire to bring [the driver] to justice for running a red light is far less important than the lives of the [plaintiff’s decedents].

 

 

Florida law, then, recognizes that a law enforcement agency may be at least partially liable when they go overboard in deciding to chase someone over a non-violent traffic violation.

 

But, whether the police are liable depends a great deal on who gets hurt. If the injured person is an innocent pedestrian who was unable to get out of the way of a speeding car, she will probably be allowed her day in court under the Brown decision. If the injured person is the one who tried to outrun police in the first place, the law will not allow him to sue.  That is what another appeals court said in Bryant v. Beary, 766 So.2d 1157 (Fla. 5th DCA 2000). The Court ruled that the police do not owe a duty of care to the person who tries to flee a lawful traffic stop.

 

But what if you’re an innocent person who happens to be riding in the car with someone who decides that he wants to outrun police instead of getting pulled over for a broken tail light? At least one court says you’re out of luck. In Fisher v. Miami Dade County, 883 So.2d 335 (Fla. 3d DCA 2004), one Florida appeals court ruled that the police owed no duty to use reasonable care toward the passenger in a car fleeing the police. It’s unclear how broadly we should read this case. One dissenting judge noted that the result should be different if, for instance, the passenger had been kidnapped. The opinion of the court portrayed the passenger in that case as being “involved in the chase,” though it’s not clear what that means. There is a big difference between a passenger who encourages the driver to flee on the one hand, and a kidnapping victim locked in a trunk on the other. And there is a big gray area in between.

 

If the police truly do not owe any duty to innocent passengers in a car that they are chasing, this is a problem of jurisprudence. Why are some innocent people able to sue for their injuries, but not others?  Police are expected to use reasonable care when conducting a chase because it is easily foreseeable that a high-speed chase can injure innocent people, such as pedestrians and drivers of other cars. If, by chance, none of those people is injured, but a kid in the back seat of the fleeing car does get injured, and it’s because the police acted negligently, the law should not treat one innocent victim differently from another.

 

We all want to support law enforcement’s efforts to keep us safe, and to apprehend criminals. Tort law does not exist to second-guess those efforts.  However, when a police officer gets overzealous, acts negligently, and causes injury to someone other than the suspect, it is reasonable to expect the law to provide a remedy. For at least some innocent people, that is reality. It is this author’s hope that Florida courts expand that remedy to apply to all innocent, foreseeable victims of negligent high-speed chases.

By Jeff Mansell