In most car accident cases, the at-fault driver can be found liable for the crash and compelled to pay damages for injuries sustained as a result of negligence. If the at-fault driver was on-the-job at the time of the crash, his or her employer may be found vicariously liable and also ordered to pay.
When the at-fault driver is a public employee, however, issues of negligence and liability can get thornier, particularly if the driver was in law enforcement.
In general, we grant law enforcement officers a great degree of latitude when it comes to “reasonable” actions. They are not always held to the same standards as the typical driver, particularly if they are responding to an emergency. For example, statutes and internal policies provide exemption for officers who speed, proceed through red lights and take other actions that would be considered by any other driver to be negligence per se. That does not mean officers can disregard public safety. It just means that the standard of care is different.
Still, officers who violate departmental policy regarding certain driving procedures or who fail to terminate a dangerous pursuit may be subject to civil liability if it results in injury or death to an innocent bystander.
In order to claim the emergency exemption, the vehicle has to be authorized and equipped with specific warning lights and sirens and those warning devices are activated. Further officers still have a duty to drive with due regard for the safety of others.
A recent case in which this issue was raised was Texas DPS v. Bonilla, in which an innocent motorist was injured when a trooper with the Texas Department of Public Safety ran a red light while pursuing a reckless driver. According to court records in the case, plaintiff sued the DPS, citing the state’s sovereign immunity waiver. If applicable, the waiver would allow plaintiff’s case to proceed.
DPS filed a motion for summary judgment, asserting it was immune from the action because:
- Trooper had official immunity;
- The emergency response exception to the sovereign immunity waiver applied.
Trial court denied that motion, and the court of appeals affirmed, finding the DPS didn’t apply the “good faith” element of its official immunity defense and the evidence presented was incompetent because it didn’t address whether the trooper had considered any alternative course of action. The Texas Supreme Court then granted review and reversed.
The state high court determined the appeals court had applied the wrong standard.
Official immunity is an affirmative defense that shields a government employee from personal liability, and thus his/her employer from vicarious liability. A government worker can be entitled to official immunity when he or she has exercised good faith performance of discretionary duties in the scope of his or her authority. This test of “good faith” action is essentially a determination of what was reasonable under the circumstances, and courts will consider the actions in terms of a reasonably prudent officer in the same or similar circumstances. A finding of good faith doesn’t mean all prudent officers would have done the same thing. Rather, plaintiff is asked to show that no prudent officer would have taken the same action under similar circumstances.
The court held that the trooper did implicitly discount other alternatives to pursuit, even if he didn’t explicitly say so. The court remanded the case to the appellate court for further consideration, using the correct standard.
Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.
Texas DPS v. Bonilla, Dec. 4, 2015, Texas Supreme Court
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