It’s not our fault…. Civil Liability of West Virginia Police Officers/Departments in Pursuit Situations

In this morning’s Beckley Register-Herald, there was an article about a West Virginia State Police pursuit involving an ATV.  Apparently there was undisputedly a pursuit of an officer in a cruiser, chasing a man on an ATV.  Also undisputed, at some point the ATV wrecked and the man was killed.  Where the issue lies is, did the wreck occur during the pursuit, or had the officer abandoned the pursuit, after which the man wrecked on down the road?  And could the West Virginia State Police be liable for a man fleeing on an ATV only to accidentally kill himself in the process?

The important fact is that the driver of the ATV was killed.  He had apparently stolen the vehicle, and thus had fled.  The end result is that this case is much, much different from a scenario in which a passenger on the ATV was killed, or some other potentially innocent third party.  I’m not going to comment on whether I think there is a case there or not for the deceased’ driver’s estate, but here is some helpful information for cases where the facts are slightly different:

This is a portion of the materials I prepared for a continuing legal education seminar that I presented in Charleston, West Virginia earlier this year which specifically deals with situations where innocent third parties are injured in car accidents resulting from police pursuit situations in West Virginia.  This deals with the liability aspects of the state or political subdivision rather than the liability of the fleeing suspect:

Most civil liability cases arising out of a pursuit situation involve collisions between the suspect and a third party.  It is well-settled in West Virginia that “[w]here the police are engaged in a vehicular pursuit of a known or suspected law violator, and the pursued vehicle collides with the vehicle of a third party, under W. Va. Code, 17C-2-5 (1971) (rules, privileges and immunities of authorized emergency vehicles), the pursuing officer is not liable for injuries to the third party arising out of the collision unless the officer’s conduct in the pursuit amounted to reckless conduct or gross negligence and was a substantial factor in bringing about the collision.” Syl. Pt. 5 Peak v. Ratliff, 185 W. Va. 548 (1991); See also Sergent v. City of Charleston, 209 W. Va. 437 (2001).

As with other types of police liability cases, employees of political subdivisions are individually liable for their grossly negligent or bad faith conduct.  However, there’s no need to name them personally, because pursuant to the West Virginia Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act, their employer political subdivisions are already liable for damages due to the “negligent operation of any vehicle by their employees when engaged and within the scope of their authority,” W. Va. Code § 29-12A-4(c)(1) and (2), which encapsulates conduct in violation of the the Peak Criteria balancing test described below – which the Court describes as “negligent, wanton, or reckless.”  Note that if a political subdivision employee officer is named personally in the complaint, there may be a circumstantial argument that the plaintiff believes the officer was acting outside the scope of employment – leading the insurer to potentially issue a reservation of rights.  With respect to state employees, i.e., troopers, they may be named personally without the same limitations, and their conduct will be governed by the Peak Criteria discussed below.

Therefore, with respect to state employees, such as State Police officers, the applicable standard of care is W. Va. § 17C-2-5 and it’s interpretation in the Peak Critera.  The standard of care with respect to deputy sheriffs and municipal officers is both the West Virginia Governmental Tort Claims and Insurance Reform Act and W. Va. Code § 17C-2-5.  For these purposes, the phrase “reckless disregard for the safety of others, as used in W. Va. Code § 17C-2-5, is synonymous with gross negligence.” Peak, 185 W. Va. at 552.

West Virginia Code § 17C-2-5 governs the privileges and immunities of police officers who are driving authorized emergency vehicles in pursuit of actual or suspected violators of the law, which provides:

(a) The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle . . . when in the pursuit of an actual or suspected violator of the law . . . may exercise the privileges set forth in this section, but subject to the conditions herein stated.

(b) The driver of an authorized emergency vehicle may:

(1)      Park or stand, irrespective of the provisions of this chapter;

(2)     Proceed past a red or stop signal or stop sign, but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation;

(3)     Exceed the speed limits so long as he does not endanger life or  property;

(4)     Disregard regulations governing the direction of movement of [or]  turning in specified directions.

(c)     The exemptions herein granted to an authorized emergency vehicle shall apply only when the driver of any said vehicle while in motion sounds audible          signal by bell, siren, or exhaust whistle as may be reasonably necessary, and when the vehicle is equipped with at least one lighted flashing lamp as authorized by section twenty-six [§ 17C-15-26], article fifteen of this chapter which is visible under normal atmospheric conditions from a distance of five hundred feet to the front of such vehicle, except that an authorized emergency vehicle operated as a police vehicle need not be equipped with or display a warning light visible from in front of the vehicle.

(d)      The foregoing provisions shall not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons, nor shall these provisions protect the driver from the consequences of his reckless disregard for the safety of others.

In interpreting W. Va. Code § 17C-2-5, the West Virginia Supreme Court adopted the following factors to consider in analyzing whether the pursing officer’s conduct was negligent, wanton, or reckless (“The Peak Criteria”): seriousness of the law violation, whether the suspect escaped during a previous pursuit, whether weapons, drugs, stolen property, or kidnap victims could be present, whether the pursued vehicle is stolen, whether the officer is familiar with the road and its attributes, the weather conditions and visibility, the officer’s degree of caution in relation to the speed of the pursuit, whether pedestrians are present, the amount of traffic, the length of the pursuit, whether the officer “forced the pursuit” by attempting to overtake the suspect or force the suspect off the road, whether the officer fired a weapon and caused the suspect to panic.  Specifically, the Peak Court reasoned:

Trooper Ratliff and Corporal Fulknier were confronted with a serious law violator who had escaped capture in a vehicular pursuit the previous evening. The officers knew of Mr. Akers’ past record and the fact that the vehicle he abandoned on September 14, 1987, contained a weapon and drugs. Both vehicles driven by Mr. Akers on these two days were stolen. The officers were familiar with the road on which the pursuit was conducted. There was good visibility during the chase and no inclement weather which would make the road hazardous. Even though the speed was estimated at between 60 and 100 miles per hour, the officers were careful to slow down when passing cars. There were no pedestrians, and the traffic was moderate. The pursuit lasted only a brief period of time. It does not appear that the officers forced the pursuit by attempting to overtake Mr. Akers or by forcing him off the roadway. Neither officer attempted to fire his weapon, an act which might cause a fleeing suspect to panic. When Mr. Akers crossed the center line and drove into the filling station where the collision occurred, the officers were not in sight.

Peak, 185 W.Va. at 558, 408 S.E.2d at 310.

There also may be a proximate cause issue to deal with where you have a collision caused by the criminal behavior of the pursued suspect.  This issue was discussed by the West Virginia Supreme Court in Sergent v. City of Charleston, 209 W. Va. 437, 549 S.E.2d 311, where the Court noted that, given that proximate cause must be proven in a personal injury negligence action, “[t]he proximate cause of an injury is the last negligent act contributing to the injury and without which the injury would not have occurred.” Id. (citing Syl. Pt. 5 Hartley v. Crede, 140 W. Va. 133 (1954), overruled on other grounds).  But, “a tortfeasor whose negligence is a substantial factor in bringing about injuries is not relieved from liability by the intervening acts of third persons if those acts were reasonably foreseeable by the original tortfeasor at the time of his negligent conduct.” Syl. Pt. 13, Anderson v. Moulder, 183 W. Va. 77 (1990).  But, “generally, a willful, malicious, or criminal act breaks the chain of causation.” Yourtee v. Hubbard, 196 W. Va. 683, 690 (1996).

In the Sergent case, the Court held that the intervening criminal acts of “pursuing undercover officers, firing at them, fleeing from the police at high speed, and swerving off the road and onto the berm” were intervening acts which were not foreseeable by the officers involved, thereby “breaking the chain of causation which originally began with their arguably negligent conduct and relieving them, and their employers, of any liability.” Sergent, at S.E. Page 320-21.

Note, in the Sergent case, the plaintiff had proffered an affidavit written by a Maryland State Police officer giving an opinion that, based upon his professional experience, that the actions of the defendant officers

“departed from the standard of professional police conduct, so as to constitute gross negligence, and wanton and reckless conduct on their part, which proximately contributed to the incident causing the death of David Sergent, to include, but not necessarily limited to . . . their high speed pursuit . . . without breaking off the same prior to reaching the congested area; and by otherwise failing to utilize accepted national standards for bringing a fleeing suspect’s vehicle to stop . . . [f]ailing to abide by the Charleston Police Department’s own policies and procedures pertinent to: a. Planning and executing their apprehension of the suspect Jerome Thomas; b. The protection of life during vehicular pursuit; c. Breaking off vehicular pursuit for the public safety; and d. Rendering aid to an injured pedestrian . . . 6. Their failure to abide by and adhere to standards of professional police conduct, such as those contained in the International Association of Chiefs of Police, Inc., Model Policy on Vehicular Pursuits.”

The Court held that no rational jury could find that the conduct of [the officers] . . . was wanton or reckless.  Regarding Sergeant Miller’s affidavit, the Court noted that:

The bulk of Sergeant Miller’s affidavit concerning the officers’ conduct during the vehicular pursuit amounts to nothing more than mere allegations. The affidavit opines that the officers failed to follow applicable local, national and international police standards and failed to protect life during the vehicular pursuit. But without pointing to specific tortious conduct and showing how this conduct caused the suspects’ collision with the decedent, these allegations are wholly insufficient to support a negligence action. Stripped of these allegations, the appellant’s claim is essentially that it was negligence for the officers not to terminate their pursuit prior to the decedent’s death. We reject this claim as being contrary to our law.

Sergent, at S.E. Page 320-21.

– John H. Bryan, West Virginia Attorney

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