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When A Police Chase Goes Wrong, Who’s Responsible?

Summer in California is known for its long sunny days and warm evenings. Warm weather has a dark side, however. Nationwide, summers lead to a major rise in crime. Long days and nice weather lead to more opportunities for people with bad intentions. That has consequences for everyone. When crime levels are higher, so is police activity. As law enforcement attempts to clamp down on criminal activity, sometimes innocent people are caught in the crossfire.

For example, if a suspect tries to escape from custody, police officers may have to chase them. In a police chase, accidents are all too common. As the weather has improved, California has seen several dangerous car chase accidents in just the past month, including:

  • A police pursuit in Bakersfield on May 17th led to the death of a suspected kidnapper after he crashed his car and was tasered by an officer.
  • On May 2nd in Pacifica, a police chase led to the suspect driving on the wrong side of Highway 1 and crashing into the guardrail. Had the chase taken place at any time other than the middle of the night, it would have had horrific consequences.
  • Most tragically, n April 26th, a San Jose car chase had fatal consequences when a driver fled from police, ran a red light, and hit two siblings who died at the scene. The driver and his passenger were injured as well.

These chases are dangerous for everyone, from the suspects and law enforcement officers to anyone else sharing the road. It’s clear that they should be avoided at all costs. When a vehicle pursuit takes place, someone should be held accountable for the consequences. The question is simple: who is liable?

The State of California’s Car Chase Laws

There’s no law banning car chases, and there are laws prohibiting suspects from escaping custody. Anyone who tries to evade the cops using a car commits “evasion of the police in a vehicle.”

Add in dangerous driving, like weaving through traffic or ignoring stoplights, and it becomes reckless evasion, which may be a felony. Finally, if the fleeing person injures someone else in the process, it’s automatically a felony.

In California, when a suspect tries to escape custody, police officers have the freedom to pursue them. However, there’s a difference between returning a suspect to custody and taking part in a dangerous road pursuit. While there’s no state-wide law against car chases, many individual police precincts are putting policies in place to restrict officers from dangerous chases.

For example, in San Francisco, regulations prohibit high-speed chases of non-violent criminals. Precinct supervisors have to call off the hunt if they don’t believe the suspect is an “imminent danger” to the public. However, violent criminals are still grounds for a high-speed chase. Even short and low-speed chases can have deadly consequences.

Who Is Liable for Police Chase Accidents?

When innocent people are hurt or killed because of a car chase, someone must be held responsible. The victim’s life has been permanently changed. If they or their family are struggling because of the accident, they deserve compensation for their losses.

Compensation, or damages, is money that a court awards to a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit like a wrongful death case. Courts award damages when they judge that the defendant is liable or responsible for the harm the plaintiff suffered.

Three main groups could be found liable for a police car chase accident:

  • The suspect: If the suspect hadn’t been trying to evade the cops, the chase wouldn’t have happened. If they behaved recklessly during the hunt, they might be responsible for any injuries that occurred.
  • The police officers and their department: If an officer continues a chase that should have been called off because of safety risks or department policy, they may be liable for a crash. Meanwhile, if a department has policies that put innocent people at risk, they may share liability as well.
  • Government agencies: In rare cases, a government agency may be considered liable for the results of a police pursuit. If the agency doesn’t provide adequate training or add safeguards to prevent dangerous pursuits, it could be regarded as responsible.

Sometimes, two or all three of these groups are responsible for your accident. If that’s the case, you can name all relevant parties as defendants if you decide to file a lawsuit.

How Liability Is Decided

Every accident is unique. Liability is decided on a case-by-case basis. A party is considered liable for damages if:

  • They had a duty of care, or a responsibility to keep the road safe
  • They didn’t fulfill that duty because they were negligent or reckless
  • That negligence or recklessness causes a crash
  • The crash was the direct cause of an injury or death

The judge presiding over the case will look for proof of all four elements of liability before making a decision. They will also consider California state laws regarding qualified immunity.

Government agencies and employees are subject to qualified immunity, which often protects them from lawsuits that relate to their regular duties. That means that unless the cop or precinct was extremely reckless, they might not be found liable.

Still, times are changing. What’s considered “reckless” is changing, too. Public lawsuits were one of the major forces behind San Francisco’s regulations limiting high-speed chases. If you’re suffering because of a police car chase accident, it’s worth the effort to try to hold them responsible.

When Car Chases Are Too Dangerous, Nobody Wins

There’s no simple way to make police vehicle pursuits less risky. As long as cops continue to pursue suspects on the road, there will be accidents and injuries. In many cases, the chases themselves are more dangerous than just finding the suspect again later.

Until legislators take steps to end car chases, the public is in danger. If you’ve been injured in a car chase accident, you can put pressure on the establishment by filing a lawsuit. You deserve better than an apology; you deserve change. Get in touch with an experienced car accident attorney to discuss your case.