Car Accident Lawsuit Involves Sheriff, Qualified Immunity

An Alabama couple is suing a county sheriff for injuries they incurred in a car accident that happened when the sheriff, in a county-owned sport utility vehicle, pulled out in front of them while she was attempting to turn into a gas station. police car

Although the county and its insurer paid for the couple’s vehicle repairs as a result of the wreck, the couple is seeking compensation for medical bills and the pain and suffering they endured as a result of the collision. The case hasn’t made it to the trial phase, and the county circuit court judge has urged both sides to work together to settle the case through mediation. However, if the matter does go to trial, a key point of contention will likely be qualified immunity.

The couple is suing the sheriff personally. Although she was operating a county-owned vehicle, they contend she was not acting in the course and scope of employment, and thus she is not entitled to qualified immunity. Qualified immunity is a principle that shields public officials from damages for civil liability as long as they didn’t violate any clearly established constitutional or statutory rights. The immunity extends to state and federal employees, and it includes law enforcement officers. The purpose is to allow government workers to perform the responsibilities of their job without fear of facing litigation by those who might suffer injuries.

While qualified immunity is pretty broad, it’s not meant to offer absolute protection for any and all actions by government workers. In order for qualified immunity to apply, the official has to have been acting in the course and scope of their employment, and they also have to have been acting in good faith and with due care.

In North Carolina, the 1981 North Carolina Court of Appeals case of Pigott v. City of Wilmington held that qualified immunity applies only to public officials rather than public employees. In general, the difference is that public officials occupy their offices as created by statute, they take an oath of office, and they exercise discretion in the performance of their duties.

In this case, discovery records that might detail further what the sheriff was doing at the time of the car accident haven’t yet been released. That will be a critical component. This particular case could be unique, however, in that as a high-ranking official, the sheriff could make an argument that she is perpetually on-call. Whether the court would accept this theoretical argument remains to be seen.

According to The Decatur Daily, the injured couple was cresting over a hill when the sheriff reportedly pulled out in front of them. The 64-year-old husband, who was driving, suffered a broken nose, major bruising on his face, a bruised hand, and injuries to his back and ribs, as well as general soreness. The 61-year-old wife, who was a passenger, suffered greater injuries, including a broken right hip, a broken sternum, a broken right hand, several teeth knocked out, and extensive bruising and soreness. She has yet to be able to return to work.

The state trooper’s crash report indicates the 52-year-old sheriff was traveling alone and failed to yield the right-of-way to the victims’ vehicle. At the time, which was about 6:30 a.m., she was traveling at about 15 mph, while the couple was moving at about 45 mph in a 45-mph speed zone.

The plaintiffs’ vehicle sustained more than $7,500 in damages, while the sheriff’s vehicle sustained $16,500 in damages. Neither alcohol nor drugs is believed to have been a factor in the collision.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:

South Alabama couple sue Morgan sheriff for traffic accident, Dec. 29, 2016, By Keith Clines, The Decatur Daily

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Modisette v. Apple – Should Apple Be Liable for Fatal Distracted Driving Crash? Jan. 11, 2017, Winston-Salem Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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