Proving Negligence in Police Chase Cases
In this series of articles on vehicular accidents and negligence per se, we’ve been talking about how the rules of the road can take the guesswork out of determining negligence after a car wreck. Normally, the negligence of an action is measured by whether a reasonable person would expect that action to result in harm. Under negligence per se, an action is automatically negligent if it results in harm and is also illegal.
To know what qualifies as negligence per se, one has only to look at the statutes governing legal, reasonable driving behavior. Last week, we talked about the laws concerning the use of transportation animals on public roads. This week, we’ll be focusing on OCGA 40-6-6, which outlines the rights of police officers pursuing suspects, and their responsibility not to engage in reckless behavior. This is our second article on this topic. To view our practice area page on injuries to bystanders injured in a police pursuit, click here.
What Is a Pursuing Officer Allowed to Do?
Officers pursuing suspects, as well as emergency vehicles responding to calls, are exempt from certain rules of the road.
OCGA § 40-6-6. Authorized emergency vehicles
(a) The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle or law enforcement vehicle, when responding to an emergency call, when in the pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law, or when responding to but not upon returning from a fire alarm, may exercise the privileges set forth in this Code section.
(b) The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle or law enforcement vehicle may:
(1) Park or stand, irrespective of the provisions of this chapter;
(2) Proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation;
(3) Exceed the maximum speed limits so long as he or she does not endanger life or property; and
(4) Disregard regulations governing direction of movement or turning in specified directions.
You’ve probably seen ambulances driving against traffic on the opposite side of the road to get around jams, or rolling through red lights. During a pursuit, or en route to a potential emergency, police officers are allowed to do the same, and civilians are required to yield. Officers can also use a variety of tactics to stop fleeing vehicles, including dropping spike strips, boxing the vehicle in, or even knocking it off course with the pit maneuver, but they must do so with consideration for the safety of all involved, including bystanders.
What Does It Take for an Officer to Be Considered Reckless?
When discussing what an officer can’t do on the road, it’s worth noting that officer exemptions from the law only apply when the siren and flashing lights are active.
(c) The exceptions granted by this Code section to an authorized emergency vehicle shall apply only when such vehicle is making use of an audible signal and use of a flashing or revolving red light visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of 500 feet to the front of such vehicle, except that a vehicle belonging to a federal, state, or local law enforcement agency and operated as such shall be making use of an audible signal and a flashing or revolving blue light with the same visibility to the front of the vehicle.
Exemptions also only apply to authorized law enforcement and emergency response personnel. Impersonating an authorized individual by using stolen or counterfeit sirens and lights is obviously a serious offense, but not one of the more common scenarios.
Assuming the pursuer is indeed a legitimate officer of the law, and is correctly using sirens and lights, the concept of recklessness can become frustratingly vague, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
(1) The foregoing provisions shall not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons.
(2) When a law enforcement officer in a law enforcement vehicle is pursuing a fleeing suspect in another vehicle and the fleeing suspect damages any property or injures or kills any person during the pursuit, the law enforcement officer’s pursuit shall not be the proximate cause or a contributing proximate cause of the damage, injury, or death caused by the fleeing suspect unless the law enforcement officer acted with reckless disregard for proper law enforcement procedures in the officer’s decision to initiate or continue the pursuit. Where such reckless disregard exists, the pursuit may be found to constitute a proximate cause of the damage, injury, or death caused by the fleeing suspect, but the existence of such reckless disregard shall not in and of itself establish causation.
(3) The provisions of this subsection shall apply only to issues of causation and duty and shall not affect the existence or absence of immunity which shall be determined as otherwise provided by law.
(4) Claims arising out of this subsection which are brought against local government entities, their officers, agents, servants, attorneys, and employees shall be subject to the procedures and limitations contained in Chapter 92 of Title 36.
(e) It shall be unlawful for any person to operate an authorized emergency vehicle with flashing lights other than as authorized by subsection (c) of this Code section.
Negligence per se doesn’t offer as much clarity here as it does when all parties are required to follow all rules of the road, but essentially, recklessness indicates a conscious indifference to the consequences of actions. For example, if a suspect refuses to pull over and is then injured in the course of standard, minimal-force attempts to stop the vehicle, or if the suspect happens to run over a bystander in his or her haste to escape, the pursuing officers would not be at fault. However, if an officer rams the suspect off the road directly into a visible group of bystanders, or off a sheer drop instead of onto a safe stretch of shoulder, that action would qualify as reckless and negligent.
What Damages Can You Recover After a Car Chase with a Reckless Officer?
If you were the fleeing suspect in the chase, recovery is difficult but not impossible. This is because failure to yield to a police officer is itself a violation of the rules of the road, opening you up to the same arguments of negligence per se. However, if the evidence shows that you were less than 50% responsible for the crash that caused your injuries, you may be eligible for a settlement, albeit a smaller one than you would receive with a lower level of responsibility. If you were injured as a bystander, in spite of correctly yielding to law enforcement, your case is much stronger, but you will still need to prove that the accident was directly caused by officers’ conscious disregard for your safety, rather than simply bad luck and the actions of the suspect. If you’re eligible for a settlement, it will take the form of “special” and/or “general” damages.
You Can Recover “Special” Damages to Cover Your Losses Due to Officer Recklessness
Special damages are awarded to cover a plaintiff’s direct, tangible expenses related to the incident in question, such as lost wages, doctor’s bills, and replacing damaged property. Special damages simply require you to prove that you incurred an expense as a direct result of another party’s negligent behavior. Causation may fall under actual or proximate cause, and you can learn more about the distinction here.
You Can Also Recover “General” Damages If Your Life Is Impacted by Officer Recklessness
General damages are awarded to compensate for the kinds of losses that have no dollar value, such as peace of mind, freedom from pain, and pursuit of favorite activities. If your injuries keep you from doing things you would normally do, or lessen your enjoyment of those things, then it will take more than just reimbursement for your expenses to begin to make up for the harm the incident has caused you. That’s what general damages are for.
What If I’ve Lost a Loved One to Officer Recklessness?
Death tops the list of things money can never make up for. The law recognizes this, and as such, additional rules apply in cases of wrongful death. To learn more about how wrongful death claims are different, click here.
Why Do I Need a Lawyer?
It’s always advisable to have an expert on your side during any legal proceedings. Even cases that seem simple can get complicated in a hurry, and once you realize you’ve made a mistake, been tricked, or gotten in over your head, it can be too late to salvage a settlement. When your opponent is a police officer or police department, qualified and dedicated counsel is especially important. Police culture often places members of law enforcement before justice and the law itself, and you’ll need an ally who knows how to interact with government organizations that aren’t always helpful or cooperative.
The experts at the Wetherington Law Firm are experienced in taking on law enforcement for a variety of civil infractions, as well as in personal injury law in general and traffic cases in particular. Whatever a case of police recklessness throws at us, we’ve seen it before, and we’re ready to see you through it.
How to Hire the Best Car Wreck Lawyers in Atlanta
You don’t need to have a dime to spare to work with the Wetherington Law Firm, just a good case. If we take you on, it will be on contingency, which means we only get paid when and if we win you a settlement. Call us at 404-444-8888 or fill out the form on the right for a free consultation on how we can help you.
You Can Make a Lasting Difference in the Lives of Others by Hiring the Wetherington Law Firm
As our client, you’re our first priority. We’ll fight to get you the compensation you deserve, and if you want your case to stand for more than just yourself, we’ll fight to protect other potential victims too. We believe in holding the powerful accountable when their negligence causes harm to others, and that includes law enforcement. The harder it is to get away with putting oneself above the law at the expense of others, the fewer people will attempt it in the future. We believe litigation can create real change, improving the world by making injustice as impractical and expensive as possible. To learn more about how your case could help others, reach out today!