Who Is Liable If You Are Injured in a High-Speed Police Chase?
Employees of the government and its various agencies enjoy certain immunities from civil lawsuits in California. Such immunities are intended to allow public employees and agencies to do their jobs and perform the necessary role they play in society without the threat of litigation. However, the interests of the public and the right of an injured party to recover damages must be considered when determining how far governmental immunity extends and what type(s) of protection the government agents or agencies receive, explains a California personal injury attorney.
One area where a number of questions arise related to government immunity is the area of high-speed police chases. High-speed police chases may become necessary when a suspect approached by the police flees the scene of a crime or when the police otherwise believe that someone is a danger to him or herself or society and that pursuit is necessary. However, high-speed police chases can present significant dangers not just to the suspect but also to bystanders.
California Laws on High-Speed Chases
California Vehicle Code Section 17004.7 addresses the immunity of a public agency in regard to vehicular pursuits. According to a revised version of this law that became operative July 1, 2007, a public agency is immune from liability under the following circumstances:
"A public agency … is immune from liability for civil damages for personal injury to or death of any person or damage to property resulting from the collision of a vehicle being operated by an actual or suspected violator of the law who is being, has been, or believes he or she is being or has been, pursued in a motor vehicle by a peace officer employed by the public entity."
In Lewis v. County of Sacramento, the court indicated that this immunity provides protection from civil damages resulting from a collision occurring with a vehicle operated by the suspect being pursued—not from negligent operation of the vehicle driven by the law enforcement officer.
In order to enjoy this immunity, the government agency must have a written policy on pursuit and must provide regular training and details on, among other things, 1) when to initiate a pursuit; 2) who may participate in a pursuit; 3) what driving tactics are used in what circumstances; 4) what factors must be considered to determine speed; 5) and when to terminate or continue a pursuit based on ongoing risk to the officer or the public and weather conditions.
In response to the new training requirement imposed in July 2007, the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) modified the Vehicle Pursuit Guidelines, which are required by Penal Code section 13519.8. According to these guidelines, when making the determination of whether to pursue a suspect, police must consider public safety; the safety of the officer; the nature of the offense; the danger to the suspect, passengers and bystanders; as well as factors such as road conditions, speed, weather, visibility and whether the offender might be able to be located at a later time.
Although the law provides certain protections for government agencies and agents against liability for civil damages arising from accidents or incidents that occurred while fulfilling job-related obligations, every case is different, and a reputable attorney should be consulted to determine the full extent of liability of all parties involved.
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