Jamaris Davis clung to life at a local hospital for two days before succumbing to his injuries, and although a woman is in custody and charged with his murder, family members blame local police.
21-year-old Ana Bolton led Atlanta police on a chase through the East Point area at speeds in excess of 120 mph after she allegedly stole a vehicle from an area gas station. Officers followed slowly at low speeds for some distance, but once they hit the lights, Ms. Bolton took off. She then slammed into the back of a Chevrolet Malibu that was waiting at a traffic light. Four people inside the Malibu – two adults and two children – were all seriously injured; Mr. Davis was the lone fatality.
After the incident that killed her son, Wendy Mack was very critical of police officers. “She should have never been chased,” Ms., Mack said. “The law is put there to protect and serve.”
High Speed Police Chases
Over 5,000 people, mostly police officers or innocent civilians, have been killed in reckless police chases since 1979. Many of these incidents involve non-violent, petty criminals; last summer, a 25-year-old New Jersey man was killed in a high-speed chase after he ran a red light and a 63-year-old Indianapolis woman was killed after police pursued her for several miles over a shoplifting charge. Moreover, there is evidence that if the police stop their pursuit, the suspects stop running.
In their own defense, law enforcement officers make the valid point that if laws are not diligently enforced, criminals will be encouraged to push the envelope. But there is another factor here as well: although they probably will not admit it in court or in public, many officers feel a surge of adrenaline in these situations and other considerations, such as public safety, take a back seat to “getting the bad guy.”
First responders have a great deal of immunity when they operate in emergency mode (lights and sirens active), but their immunity is not unlimited. Victims can often claim that the officers were excessively reckless by showing that the risk-reward inquiry was hopelessly out of balance. The above story is an interesting example from this perspective. The chase took place at very high speeds in a busy areas of town, so there was considerable risk to other people and their property. On the other hand, the woman had allegedly committed a felony.
A second possible basis is a violation of policy. Many agencies have standing written policies against high-speed chases, and in other situations, the dispatcher may issue orders like “do not pursue” or “proceed with caution.” The problem for victims is that many of these formal and informal policies give considerable deference to first responders and allow them to rely on their own judgement, so the violation must typically be egregious for a jury to side with the victim.
Very soon, however, technology may tilt the playing field in favor of victims. Houston police recently began testing a pair of devices that may one day eliminate the need for high-speed chases. One is a miniature GPS locator with an adhesive surface that is launched from a patrol car and sticks to the suspect vehicle. Officers say the device has a 90 percent success rate in field tests. The other gadget is an exploding briefcase that spreads spikes across the road to disable the suspect’s vehicle’s tires; the spikes immediately retract to prevent damage to pursuing vehicles.
If these devices are successful, high-speed chases my become reckless almost as a matter of law, because there is no need to pursue most suspects. Policies that allow reckless pursuits may also be challenged as out-of-step with the available technology and the needs of the people.
Third Party Liability Issues
The city, county, state, or other government agency that employs the officers is responsible for the plaintiff’s damages in these cases, because of respondeat superior (“let the master answer”). For this theory to apply, the negligent actor must be an employee who is acting within the course and scope of employment.
These elements are typically easy to prove in high-speed police chase cases, because these concepts are interpreted very broadly. Any workers, and most volunteers, are considered “employees” for tort purposes. Similarly, any act that benefits the employer in any way meets the “course and scope” standard.
Government entities and their employees are normally immune from liability lawsuits, but Georgia has expressly waived its sovereign immunity in this area. However, victims must follow special procedures to obtain compensation for their injuries.
Under Section 36-33-5 of the Georgia Statutes, victims must file a written notice of claim within six months of the incident; most injury victims have two years to file actions in court. Because the government agency evaluates the case based on the notice of claim, the notice must be very comprehensive and well-written.
Upon receipt of the claim, the agency can either ignore it or negotiate with the victim to settle the matter. If the agency does nothing, or the case does not settle on mutually agreeable terms, the victims may file lawsuits in civil court.
Rely on an Experienced Attorney
The changing landscape of high-speed police chase cases may favor victims. For a free consultation with an experienced Fayetteville personal injury attorney, contact the Wade Law Offices. We routinely handle matters in Fayette County and nearby jurisdict