One person is dead, and another one seriously injured, following a high-speed car crash in Cobb County.
As police responded to a disturbance call on Milford Church Road, officers saw an orange Dodge Challenger leaving the area. When officers attempted to pull over the driver to investigate, the motorist, who was later identified as 31-year-old David Fuller, of Locust Grove, refused to stop and accelerated onto Windy Hill Road. As officers pursued at high speeds, they learned that there were several outstanding warrants against Mr. Fuller, including one for allegedly absconding from probation (failing to report or fulfill other requirements) in 2005. As the chase continued eastbound on Windy Hill, speeds eventually reached 100 mph. The pursuit ended when Mr. Fuller crashed into a Monte Carlo; the force of the collision split the Monte Carlo in half and its driver, 26-year-old Guadalupe Osnorio, of Smyrna, was killed instantly. A passenger in the Charger, 22-year-old Dillion Gallion, of Locust Grove, was seriously injured and rushed to a nearby hospital. After the chase, police discovered a gun in Mr. Fuller’s car.
Authorities charged Mr. Fuller with several criminal charges, including serious injury by vehicle, vehicular homicide, and eluding arrest.
High Speed Chases
Over the last 20 years, reckless police chases have killed more than 5,000 people, and many of them are innocent bystanders. That is more people than hurricanes, floods, and lightning strikes combined. Because of this carnage, some have speculated that ending such chases may be a good idea. As far back as 1980, the Justice Department called these incidents “the most dangerous of all ordinary police activities” and noted that more people died in chased than in officer-involved shootings. But, for reasons discussed more fully below, these chases are here to stay.
The above incident is actually an aberration, because it involves a violent offense. A significant number of high speed police chases stem from non-violent offenses. Actually, it is not unheard of for officers to recklessly pursue vehicles for speeding tickets and other rather trivial matters.
Far from improving the situation, reckless chases sometimes make the matter worse. DUIs are a good example. It is far more dangerous for an intoxicated motorist to elude police at dangerously high speeds than if the motorist is attempting to slither home. The fact that many suspects stop running if the police break off their pursuit underscores this reality. Moreover, some of the tactics that officers use during these chases are very risky. For example, in a PIT (Precision Immobilization Technique) maneuver, officers ram the suspect vehicle, causing it to spin out of control.
The risky aspect of high speed chases is one reason that they are still used, because most officers will admit (off the record) that they enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from a high-speed chase. There is a legitimate interest as well, because any decision to pursue some suspects and let others go may well be the first step down a slippery slope.
Liability in High Speed Chases
Officers have a great deal of freedom when pursuing suspects. They obviously do not have to obey traffic laws, especially when their vehicles are in emergency mode, which is sirens wailing and/or lights flashing. But their immunity from negligence lawsuits is not unlimited. To establish liability, injured victims can normally pursue one of two theories:
- Reckless Endangerment: This subjective evaluation basically looks at the risk-reward. If police pursue a non-violent suspect at high speeds through a busy residential area in Ronin fashion, they would be hard-pressed to justify their actions. If authorities pursue a violent suspect on a highway while maintaining some awareness of other motorists, they are probably not recklessly indifferent to the lives or property of others. Almost anything else is in a grey area.
- Policy Violation: Sometimes this evaluation is objective, but mostly it is subjective. Almost no police departments have a policy in place that bans police chases, but sometimes the dispatcher sends a message like “do not pursue” or “pursue only with extreme caution.” Typically, if the department has a policy, it states that officers must use their discretion when chasing suspects, so the analysis goes back to the reckless endangerment question addressed above.
Victims can normally obtain compensation for their economic damages, like lost wages, and noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering. Punitive damages are also available, in some cases.
Procedure in Police Chase Cases
If the tortfeasor (negligent actor) was a private security guard or other non-public employee, the victim may sue in civil court in a standard negligence proceeding. But if the tortfeasor was a highway patrol officer, city police officer, county sheriff’s deputy, or other public employee, the Georgia Tort Claims Act applies. Governments normally have sovereign immunity, which means they cannot be sued for negligence. However, in car crash cases, Georgia has waived its sovereign immunity so victims are eligible for compensation, if they follow special procedures.
Normally, the statute of limitations for Georgia tort cases is two years. But if the tortfeasor is a public employee, the victim has only six months to file a written notice of claim; if the claim involves a wrongful death, the claimant must file within six months of the date of death as opposed to the date of injury. Courts very rarely grant extensions or allow late filings, so an attorney must get to work quickly to gather the relevant facts.
If the government body does nothing or does not offer a fair settlement, the victim may be able to file a case in civil court.
Rely on an Experienced Attorney
High speed police chases create complicated legal and factual issues. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury lawyer in Fayetteville, contact the Wade Law Offices. We routinely handle cases in Fayette County and nearby jurisdictions.