The Counsellor's Corner
Iím sure you are all familiar with what has become quite a regular occurrence in Southern California, the freeway chase.† In these situations, you are usually watching your favorite television program when suddenly it gets interrupted by live helicopter coverage of the latest chase.† Some are high-speed chases and some are low-speed chases, however they all feature individuals attempting to avoid police officers who follow them until they generally crash, run out of gas, or leave their car and make a run for it.†
How does this relate to the law?† The key question recently responded to by the United States Supreme Court is whether or not innocent motorists and innocent bystanders who are hit and injured as a result of a chase can then sue the police department doing the chasing claiming
†negligence or recklessness.† Obviously, the person being chased would also be responsible but that individual often does not have insurance or assets, and if the Supreme Court were to allow these suits to stand, the police department could be held responsible for at least some of the damages.
The Supreme Court justices were faced with appeals from four Southern California accident victims who were innocent victims injured in car chases when struck either by the vehicle being chased or by a police car.† One of the injured who was suing was Gabriel Torres of Pico Rivera who was struck by a vehicle traveling 130 miles an hour with California Highway Patrol officers in hot pursuit.† Mr. Torres was thrown from his vehicle, and he is now blind in one eye and has had a multitude of operations in an attempt to reconstruct broken bones in his face.† Mr. Torresís claim and that of the three others were filed in Federal Court as the law in the State of California shields police officers from this type of lawsuit.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided that police officers need to have the freedom to pursue suspects and not be concerned about litigation.† The Court decided that they do not want officers hamstrung in their ability to carry out their duty.† Interestingly, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that police officers could only be sued for these type of accidents if they had ďan intent to harm the suspectĒ who was fleeing.† Obviously this protects no one as officers are not intending to hurt or harm the people they are chasing, they are generally attempting to pull them over without more of a hazard being created.†
The downside here is that innocent citizens have no remedy.† They cannot turn to Federal Courts or State Courts for redress.† You can be minding your own business, get caught near a chase as you are on your way home, get crippled or have some other lifelong injury take place, and there is no one for you to sue.†
All in all, I support this decision.† While Iím certainly sympathetic to the injured bystander or injured motorist, I think their needs are outweighed by the need for the police officer to pursue the car being chased in a relatively unfettered manner.† This should provide a strong reminder for people to make sure they have uninsured motorist insurance.† That would be their salvation in a case such as this.
I would also be in favor of the creation of a state fund to help these victims, such as is in existence for victims of violent crimes as that would enable the injured individuals to be compensated without interfering with the police officer who must be able to do his job.†
Dr. Charles J. Unger is a criminal defense attorney in the Glendale law firm of Flanagan, Booth & Unger, and a therapist at the Foothill Centre for Personal and Family Growth.† Mr. Unger writes a bimonthly column on legal and psychological issues