Three teens in a stolen car were involved in a serious accident following a high-speed police chase in San Diego earlier this week, raising potential questions about liability.
Racing at an estimated 60 miles per hour, the driver of the stolen Honda Civic slammed into an SUV after running a red light. The occupants of the SUV sustained minor injuries; the three suspects were more seriously hurt.
But who's liable for police chase injuries?
Chased Suspect's Liability
Generally, drivers owe a duty of care to pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists. They can breach their duty when they drive negligently or recklessly.
The wrongdoer in a high-speed chase can be liable for injuries based on:
- Negligence. Liability is triggered if the suspect was driving carelessly and caused injury and/or property damage.
- Negligence per se. If the driver's speed far exceeds the posted speed limit, he or she may be found liable for negligence just by breaking the law in certain cases.
- Negligent infliction of emotional distress. A driver may be liable for causing a victim emotional distress if the victim sustained a medical injury.
Potential Police Liability
What about the police who were chasing the alleged criminals?
Law-enforcement officers have broad powers to carry out their duties. Mere negligence -- the failure to exercise due care -- usually isn't enough to create liability. But that's not the rule in every state.
Last month, the Utah Supreme Court held that a Utah statute, which exempts emergency vehicles from normal traffic laws during pursuits, does not relieve officers of the duty to drive in a reasonably prudent way.
Typically, officers don't have a duty to the alleged wrongdoers they're chasing -- only to bystanders. But the Utah court ruled the officers owed a duty of care to the suspects.
In California, officers enjoy limited governmental immunity. Before initiating a chase, they must consider factors such as the nature of the offense, safer alternatives, population density and road conditions. If the risk to police and the public outweighs the danger to the community if the suspect isn't caught right away, then officers must end the chase.
Despite these rules, the San Diego police officers may escape liability because courts typically defer to officers' judgment. A finding that a duty exists is very different from a finding that a duty was breached, which is essential to trigger liability.