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Officers Owe 'Duty of Care' to Car Chase Suspects: Utah Sup. Ct.

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on August 08, 2013 11:05 AM

Law-enforcement officers owe a duty of care to drivers during high-speed chases -- not just to innocent bystanders, but to fleeing suspects as well, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled.

In a decision issued Tuesday, the Beehive State's highest court held that the family of a teen who was killed during a high-speed police chase can sue the sheriff's deputy who was chasing him.

Will the decision affect law enforcement officers' approach to police chases?

Case Triggered by Chase, Crash

The case before the Utah Supreme Court involved 16-year-old Wayne Torrie, who took off with a family car in 2010. His mom called the cops to help find him, reports The Salt Lake Tribune.

Soon after, Torrie texted his mom saying he was afraid to go to jail and would flee even if it meant hurting himself. The sheriff's office allegedly knew about the texts but pursued him anyway.

Torrie eventually crashed into an embankment and suffered fatal injuries.

Duty of Care

Generally, drivers owe a duty of care to pedestrians, cyclists, and other motorists. They breach their duty when they drive negligently or recklessly.

The rules are typically different for law-enforcement officers. They have broad powers to carry out their duties. Mere negligence -- the failure to exercise due care -- is typically not enough to create liability.

That's why a lower court initially tossed the family's lawsuit, on the basis that officers don't have a duty to the alleged wrongdoers they're chasing -- only to bystanders, reports the Tribune.

But the Utah Supreme Court reversed the decision, holding the Utah statute that exempts emergency vehicles from normal traffic laws during pursuits does not relieve officers of the duty to drive in a reasonably prudent way.

The court noted that Utah lawmakers didn't create any exception for fleeing suspects in the statute.

'Chilling Effect'?

Now that the court has established that the officer owed a duty of care to Torrie, the next step for the family will be to prove the officer breached his duty.

Some critics are concerned the decision could have a "chilling effect" on police chases -- that officers will be too concerned about liability to pursue alleged wrongdoers.

But in reality, the majority of officers likely won't face liability because courts typically defer to their judgment. A finding that a duty exists is very different from a finding that a duty was breached.

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