Hit by a Police Car During a Pursuit?
Michael Rubinstein, Esq.
Los Angeles is known for many things—the sunny weather, and a laid back lifestyle chief among them. Yet, nearly every week the news reports another high-speed police chase that occurs on the freeways surrounding the Los Angeles metropolitan area. With the iconic images of the LAPD pursuing a fleeing OJ Simpson in June of 1994, police pursuits are ingrained in Los Angeles popular culture. So the question arises: what happens if a police vehicle crashes into a bystander during a pursuit?
The answer might be surprising.
The California Vehicle Code provides immunity to law enforcement agencies for injuries arising out of police pursuits, whether the collision is caused by the police car or the fleeing one. Specifically, section 17004.7 states:
“a public agency employing peace officers that adopts and promulgates a written policy on, and provides regular and periodic training on an annual basis for, vehicular pursuits. ..is immune from liability for civil damages for personal injury to or death of any person or damage to property resulting from the collision of a vehicle being operated by an actual or suspected violator of the law who is being, has been, or believes he or she is being or has been, pursued in a motor vehicle by a peace officer employed by the public entity.”
The Code goes on to say that police agencies have the authority to enact their own pursuit policies. The surprising fact is that there is no uniform policy across all state police agencies—it is up to each department to promulgate their own procedures for ensuring the safest police pursuit practices. For example, in Los Angeles County, pursuit practices diverge sharply between the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department.
The Sheriff’s Department recently empaneled a Civil Grand Jury to investigate the Department’s vehicle pursuit practices. The Grand Jury provided some troubling background statistics:
- More than 5,000 innocent bystanders and passengers have been killed across the United States in police chases since 1979—322 in 2013 alone;
- 91% of police chases are initiated in response to a non-violent crime;
- California leads the nation in high-speed pursuit deaths;
- Injuries occurred in the City of Los Angeles in 15% of police pursuits in 2015.
The Grand Jury also compared the training received by Sheriff’s Deputies and officers of the LAPD in the area of police pursuits. The Sheriff’s Department uses out-of-date vehicles that are no longer used in the field. Deputies are not required to re-certify after completing the training, and the simulations do not include real-world stimuli like traffic lights or residential streets. In contrast, the LAPD’s simulator uses a fleet of police cars that is comparable to those used in the field, and the training provides real-lifelike pursuit situations for the officers undergoing the training.
The conclusions were that police pursuits too often result in unnecessary bystander injuries and deaths. Most pursuits are not provoked by serious crimes, and law enforcement agencies need to do a better job of balancing the safety of the surrounding population against the seriousness of the crime that aroused the officer’s attention.
Finally, are the police always immune when causing a crash? Of course not! Each situation is unique. An officer who rear ends another vehicle during regular driving would be viewed differently than, say, one who collides with another car during a police chase. And someone injured in a collision caused by a driver fleeing from police could still hold the driver of the fleeing car responsible for any injuries. Each scenario is unique, as are the statute of limitations involving public police agencies. It’s a good idea to consult an attorney for advice about your particular experience.
Michael Rubinstein is a Los Angeles based personal injury and accident attorney. He may be reached by visiting http://www.rabbilawyer.com, or by calling 213-293-6075.