6/27/2019Kentucky Supreme Court Holds Cop Liable In Fatal Accident
Kentucky Supreme Court dumps 67-year-old precedent to hold police accountable for initiating fatal pursuits.
Police officers in Kentucky will no longer escape accountability when they cause a fatal collision. The state Supreme Court earlier this month reversed a long-standing precedent so that a Scott County deputy could be sued for starting the high-speed chase that caused the death of Luis Gonzalez, an innocent driver.
Deputy Sheriff Jeremy Johnson had been counting on the 1952 case Chambers v. Ideal Pure Milk Company to clear him in the unauthorized chase of a suspected heroin dealer on a rainy evening in January 2014. The high court had ruled back then that police were not liable for damages caused by a fleeing suspect during a car chase.
Deputy Johnson had violated policy by running with lights on, but no siren. The suspect he was chasing failed to slow before approaching a set of curves. That car spun out of control and into Gonzalez head-on, killing him and the car's other occupant.
The lower courts threw out the wrongful death suit brought by the family of Gonzalez, citing the Chambers case. The high court used its power to erase the decades-old precedent that "police cannot be made insurers of the conducts of the culprits they chase" by questioning its underlying reasoning.
"The Chambers court provided no statutory support or legal precedent to defend this bare conclusion, and was thus, judge-made law," Justice Debra Hembree Lambert wrote for the high court majority last week. "Because of this, our trial courts and juries were precluded from ever finding that police officers were the cause of any damage suffered by a third party who is hit by a fleeing suspect."
An average of 355 people each year are killed in police pursuits nationwide, a third of whom are innocent bystanders.
"We of course do not criticize the actions of the men and women of law enforcement lightly," Justice Lambert noted. "We instead hold that an officer can be the cause-in-fact and legal cause of damages inflicted upon a third party as a result of a negligent pursuit."
In the Gonzalez crash, the court held that a jury should decide whether the deputy should be accountable. A copy of the ruling is available in a 500k PDF file at the source link below.