This week police pulled over a cyclist in Rancho Cucamonga for a missing a license plate. The cyclist took off, police sped after him, reaching a speed of 110 mph. Police actually called the chase off because it was getting too dangerous.
Unfortunately — the rider then crashed into a Toyota Corolla at the I-10 off ramp in Ontario. The cyclist died.
In the last 40 years, more than 5,000 bystanders and passengers have been killed in high-speed car chases. Tens of thousands have been injured in these chases. All too often, the offense that leads to death or severe injury is something minor, like a busted tail light.
Sometimes the deaths are caused directly by police, sometimes bystanders are killed by the fleeing offender.
Who is liable for these injuries?
All drivers are bound by a “duty of care” to consider the safety of others around them. They fail in that duty when their carelessness causes others to be hurt.
Police can be liable the same as civilian drivers. But they do enjoy greater leeway. Mere negligence, like exceeding the speed limit, is not enough to make them responsible.
In most situations, police are not liable if they are chasing you and you are hurt. But they may well be liable if their chase causes innocent bystanders to be hurt. Chasing someone for a busted tail light does not entitle them to injure people who happen to be nearby.
Factors to consider
Here in California, police are entitled to a degree of immunity. But they are still bound by the need to be prudent and thoughtful in chase situations. They are expected to think about various factors:
Is the offense worth someone getting hurt or killed?
Is there a safer way to deal with the problem?
What are the local conditions? Is it a populated area? Is it raining? Is there a parade happening?
The law is important, but the safety of the public trumps causing a commotion for an insignificant offense.
When police do not consider these factors, they are vulnerable to a lawsuit.