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Liability for Injury or Death in California Police Pursuits

High-speed police pursuits in Los Angeles and across California place the lives of innocent bystanders at risk. When police pursue suspects, they sometimes cause accidents with other motorists or pedestrians. People who are injured and the families of those who are killed in police pursuits may have little recourse because of governmental immunity. The California Supreme Court will soon hear the case of Ramirez v. City of Gardena, Cal. Ct. App. No. B279873, a case in which there is a question of how broadly the immunity from lawsuits should be interpreted when police engage in high-speed pursuits.

Factual and procedural background

On Feb. 15, 2015, Mark Gamar was riding as a passenger in a vehicle. A report had been made to law enforcement that cell phones had been stolen at gunpoint, and the vehicle in which Gamar was riding matched the description. Police officers who saw the truck in which Gamar was a passenger engaged in a high-speed pursuit of it. An officer performed a pursuit intervention technique maneuver in which the officer struck the left rear end of the truck to get it to stop. The collision caused the truck to spin out of control and strike a streetlight pole. Gamar was killed in the collision, and his mother filed a lawsuit against the city and the police department. The city filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that it was protected from lawsuits by governmental immunity. The court agreed and granted the motion. Gamar’s mother, Irma Ramirez, appealed the dismissal to the California Court of Appeals. The appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision. She then filed an appeal to the California Supreme Court, which will decide how broad qualified immunity for officers engaged in pursuits is when accidents happen.

Issue: Whether law enforcement agencies must train and certify all officers for pursuits if they have policies

Rule: Law enforcement agencies that have written policies for police pursuits will have immunity from liability in lawsuits if all officers of the agency certify that they have received, read and understand the policies.

Under Cal. Veh. Code § 17004.7, law enforcement agencies that have pursuit policies in place have governmental immunity that shields them from liability if all of the officers certify in writing that they have received the policy, have read it, understand it and have been trained in it. The law enforcement agency in the Ramirez case did have a policy in place. The plaintiff argued that the law enforcement agency had the burden of showing that every officer had signed the certification that they had received the training in order for immunity to apply, but the trial court disagreed. Ramirez also argued that the police department failed to meet its burden to show that the policy that it had met the minimum standards for driving tactics and PIT maneuvers under the statute.

Analysis

The appeals court first stated that governmental immunity is an affirmative defense that the defendant has the burden to show before the burden switches to the plaintiff to prove that there are issues of material fact that remain. The court then analyzed whether the city’s policy met the requirements of the statute for immunity to apply. An exception to immunity in police chases is found in CVC § 17001. That exception applies when an officer is negligent or engages in wrongful conduct while operating a motor vehicle for his or her job.

The plaintiff had argued that the officer’s use of the PIT maneuver was unnecessary and was not reasonable. The defendants argued that the officer did so to prevent the truck from entering an interstate going the wrong way. However, the court found that the exception was limited by the other statutory section, which protects individual officers and agencies from liability if there is a written policy and that its policy complies with the minimum standards. Finally, the court reviewed the actual policy and found that it met the minimum standards as outlined by the law.

Appeals court decision and issues to be decided by the California Supreme Court

The California Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s ruling that granted the dismissal of the lawsuit. The California Supreme Court will soon decide the case. It will rule how broad the immunity that police officers and agencies enjoy and what limitations exist for the protection from liability.

Contact an experienced injury lawyer in Los Angeles

Police officers who engage in high-speed pursuits of fleeing suspects place others in danger. People who are injured as bystanders to high-speed police pursuits might want to talk to personal injury attorneys in Los Angeles about the recovery options that they might have. The attorneys may offer honest assessments of the potential claims. Contact the Law Offices of Steven M. Sweat if you or your loved one has been injured in a police pursuit as a bystander.

Sources

https://law.justia.com/cases/california/court-of-appeal/2017/b279873.html
http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-police-pursuit-court-20180717-story.html
http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=VEH&sectionNum=17004.7
http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?sectionNum=17001.&lawCode=VEH

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