In a case involving a car accident caused by a police officer during a pursuit, Attorney Ann Ochsner of Whitley Law Firm argued successfully for the Court of Appeals to overturn the summary judgment and grant her client grounds to claim legal damages for the gross negligence committed by the defendant.
In an unfortunate turn of events, police officer D.T. was speeding to the scene of a minor accident when he collided with Whitley Law Firm client, S.W., a Wayne County woman who was trying to make a legal left turn in a residential intersection. D.T. patrol vehicle collided with the woman at a high speed, according to our accident reconstruction expert, reaching speeds of over 100 mph with his accelerator fully depressed at the time and was driving 95 mph in a 45 mph zone at the time of the collision. The accident resulted in serious injuries to both drivers.
The police officer, D.T., sued S.W., and in response, we helped her and her husband countersue for gross negligence. In summary judgment, D.T. was given the favorable decision on the counterclaims after arguing that the law clearly states that police officers are exempt from speed limits when in active pursuit of a lawbreaker.
Attorney Ann Ochsner from our firm, who was working on the case, helped the client and her husband file an appeal, arguing that the police officer, who was a warrant officer and did not usually respond to calls, was reckless in his disregard for the safety of others and that the plaintiff’s party had presented enough evidence to convince a jury that he acted in gross negligence.
The Court of Appeals unanimously ruled in favor of our client after finding that the danger caused by the officer’s action was not sufficiently counterbalanced by the law enforcement benefits. The court used three primary factors to decide the case and whether the officer was indeed within the provisions of the law or if he acted in gross negligence:
- The reason for the pursuit
- The probability of injury due to the pursuit
- The conduct of the officer during the pursuit
Using these three factors, the court concluded that the reason for the officer’s pursuit did not warrant his actions at the time of the accident. Specifically, the speed of his travel, his failure to turn on the siren and the fact that he was responding to a minor, non-injury related fender-bender led the jury to conclude that he did, in fact, act in gross negligence.
Although this question has been raised in previous cases with similar circumstances, Attorney Ochsner pointed out that all of those presented by the defendant as precedent for immunity involved pursuit of a law breaker—in comparison to the minor accident that caused this pursuit.
According to Ann Ochsner, while the most rewarding aspect of the case was seeing our clients compensated and treated fairly by the court, the most significant aspect of the ruling was the precedent it set for future cases. The appeals court stated that sovereign immunity from lawsuits for police officers did not apply in cases of gross negligence. This means that victims of accidents by police officers who act recklessly during a pursuit will have broader grounds to claim damages than before this case.