Police Liability for High Speed Chases
Many Pennsylvania laws affect the power, responsibilities and liabilities of law enforcement authorities who engage in high speed chases. A recent Pennsylvania appeals case clarified one issue relating to high speed chases—the liability of a police office to a third party injured as a result of the chase. Sellers v. Township of Abington, 67 A.3d 863 (Pa. Cmmwlth. 2013).
In the case, police officers pursued a mildly speeding car in the early morning hours. The driver immediately “floored it,” because he was afraid he would be arrested for driving under the influence. The driver and his two passengers had engaged in a long evening of drinking, and the passengers had requested rides.
As the chase ensued, at speeds in excess of 100 mph, both passengers asked the driver to stop or slow down. After hitting a dip in the roadway, the fleeing car went airborne, crashed into trees and ejected one of the passengers. The ejected passenger died, and his heirs sued the policed department claiming that the decedent passenger was an “innocent bystander,” to the chase.
Pennsylvania law provides that law enforcers are liable for their negligence to innocent bystanders who are injured as a result of police vehicle pursuit. Sometimes high speed police chases are necessary, and not all high speed chases constitute negligence. In each case, the court or jury must consider all the facts, including the speed, the officer’s experience, the duration of the chase, the actual driving that took place and any other relevant factors.
In the case of the decedent passenger, the Pennsylvania appeals court decided that passengers who engage in extensive drinking with a driver and then voluntarily ride with the inebriated driver are not innocent bystanders. The court focused on the public’s interest in ensuring that the roads are safe from dangerous drivers. Noting that police officers have no certain way to know whether there are passengers in a fleeing car, or whether passengers are victims or are complicit with the driver’s misconduct, the court absolved police officers from a duty to ascertain the presence or status of passengers in vehicular chases. The court left for another day the liability of a police officer who pursues a car where he or she has reason to know that an innocent passenger is involuntarily at risk.