Does Law Enforcement Owe A Duty Of Care To Fleeing Suspects?

It has long been established under Utah common law that a law enforcement officer engaged in a high-speed pursuit owes a duty of care to innocent bystanders during the pursuit. Thus, injury to a bystander caused by the negligent driving of an officer during a pursuit can lead to a valid claim against the officer.

The Utah Supreme Court, however, only very recently weighed in on the issue of whether such duty of care applies to fleeing suspects themselves.

The case of the high-speed chase

In March of 2010, 16-year-old Wayne Torrie took off on a joy ride with the family car, and his mother called the local police to help track him down. During the ride, the teenager texted his mom, saying that he was afraid to go to jail and that he would try to flee from police, even if it meant getting injured in the process. After less than a minute of being pursued by police, Torrie’s car veered off the road and rolled several times in a neighboring field.  Torrie was ejected from the car during the crash and suffered fatal injuries. The Torrie family filed a wrongful death lawsuit shortly after the crash.

Police officer’s duty of care

Under Utah law, drivers generally owe a duty of care to others, and negligent or reckless driving may be considered a breach of such duty. In the case of law enforcement officers, however, the rules can be different. For instance, Utah statutory law exempts emergency vehicles from the normal traffic laws during pursuits.

On this basis, a lower Utah court summarily dismissed the lawsuit, concluding that law enforcement does not owe a duty of care to fleeing suspects. The Utah Supreme Court, however, reversed the decision to dismiss the case and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings. It reasoned that the Utah statutes giving police officers broader powers to act effectively during pursuits do not relieve officers of the duty to fleeing suspects to drive in a reasonable way during the pursuit. 

Reaction to the decision

In a recent news article, concern was expressed over the decision and the effect it may have on future police pursuits. As a result of the decision, police may consider potential lawsuits from criminals as they are chasing them. Others argue that the decision should not affect the mindset of the typical police officer, because in practice, courts usually defer to the judgment of law enforcement.

Wrongful death claims are typically an uphill battle, especially when law enforcement is involved, and therefore require the careful and precise assistance of an experienced attorney.  The attorneys at Larsen, Larsen, Nash & Larsen are well-trained in a variety of complex personal injury claims and can assist you with your case.