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The case law covering injuries to innocent drivers by criminals being chased by the police is challenging to say the least. The key issue is usually whether the pursuit is one that merits a high-speed chase (is it a Mickey Mouse traffic event then “no”). Another key issue is whether the department has a written policy rule that is violated during the chase. Remember there is a difference between being bit by the cop and being hit by the criminal being chased by the cop. Let’s dig deeper.
In a recent Georgia car accident decision, the plaintiffs were hurt when someone who was fleeing sheriffs’ deputies from two counties crashed into their car. The plaintiffs claimed that it was the sheriffs’ deputies whose recklessness in continuing a high-speed chase legally caused their injuries. The case arose when deputies from Lamar and Monroe Counties chased a driver for a routine traffic stop. The Lamar deputy saw a driver who was straddling a lane divider and tried to pull him over. The driver hesitated and accelerated, and the Lamar sheriff followed. He asked the dispatcher to let the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department know. The fleeing driver was weaving through traffic. Three patrol cars driven by Monroe County deputies joined the chase.
While chasing, a Lamar deputy patrol car crashed into the median and dropped out of the chase due to a blown tire, but the Monroe deputies continued for 20 more miles. A Monroe deputy later claimed that the fleeing driver threw a white powdery substance out of the window, but his patrol car didn’t show any drugs or powder being thrown. Altogether, the deputies from the two counties traveled 45 miles going 120-125 miles per hour, starting on I-75. The driver exited onto Highway 247, ran a red light, and crashed into the plaintiffs’ car at the intersection. He tried to run away on foot but was apprehended. He was driving on a suspended license and had a baggie of marijuana. He was criminally prosecuted and got a 20-year sentence.
The plaintiffs sued the sheriffs in their official capacities. They claimed that sovereign immunity was waived because their injuries resulted from the deputies’ negligent use of county motor vehicles under OCGA §§ 33-24-51 (b); 36-92-2 (a), (d). They argued that the deputies had recklessly ignored proper procedures by continuing a dangerous chase for a minor traffic infraction. The lower court granted summary judgment to the sheriff from Lamar County on the grounds that the claims were barred by the sovereign immunity doctrine, and the plaintiffs had failed to show that the sheriff’s recklessness was the legal cause of the injuries. The evidence showed the other deputy, from Monroe County, had taken exclusive control of the chase by the time of the crash. The plaintiffs hadn’t come forward with any proof that the Lamar County sheriff had acted with reckless disregard for proper procedures. The lower court granted summary judgment to the other sheriff on the basis that there was no proof the deputies had been reckless about procedures.
The plaintiffs appealed these rulings. The Lamar County sheriff argued that sovereign immunity shielded him because the patrol car was no longer involved in the chase at the time of the crash. The car was not being used, and the chase was under the Monroe deputies’ control. The appellate court explained that sovereign immunity could only be waived by an Act of the General Assembly that specifies the waiver and the extent of it. Employees sued in their official capacities are protected without this waiver. When a county motor vehicle is immobile, it’s not in use, and there is no waiver so the case against the stopped car was thrown out.
However, the appellate court agreed with the plaintiffs that the trial court had mistakenly concluded there wasn’t evidence of reckless disregard of proper procedures by the Monroe deputies. It explained that usually whether a deputy acts with reckless disregard is a jury question. There was evidence showing that the Monroe deputies knew that the chase arose from a routine traffic stop but pursued at an aggressive high speed.
The Atlanta car accident lawyers at Christopher Simon Attorney at Law have substantial experience and are ready to help you with your possible case. Feel free to contact us for a complimentary case consultation if you are interested in learning more about the difficulties you may encounter and the options you may have.