Kentucky Police Officers Claim Qualified Immunity for Wrongful Death
by Mandy Hicks
In a recent case, a decedent’s parents appealed the court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of police officers, the police department and the City. The plaintiffs were the parents of a man who was killed in 2009 in a head-on collision with a car that was driving dangerously.
Before the collision, several people called 911 to report the dangerous driver. Because of the calls, the police department asked its officers to look out for a green sedan. When the officers responded to the call they encountered a red pickup truck on Ky. 39 and were pointed towards the highway. They thought this meant the green sedan was up ahead. The red pickup pulled up and told one of the officers that the green sedan was stopped on Ky. 39 not far away.
As one of the officers drove south on the highway, he saw the green sedan at the end of a driveway on the left side of the road. Traffic stopped him from seeing license plate numbers, but he saw that the driver of the sedan looked lifeless and he was worried it was a medical emergency. The officer decided to stop, turned around and pulled into another driveway nearby. He radioed to ask for backup and another officer came to help. Both officers turned on their emergency lights. They thought the driver of the sedan would pull forward and allow them to pull behind him. Instead the driver backed out of the driveway, waved and drove off. The officer angled his car into the lane to show the sedan’s driver he wanted him to stop.
The officers followed him and turned their sirens on. However, they weren’t able to keep visual contact with the car. The officers regained visual contact of the driver and saw him make an abrupt right turn. The officers followed him and saw him accelerate his car to about 80 mph, and was soon going 100 miles or more per hour. The dispatch advised the marked police car should take the lead. The officers slowed down when they realized he was driving dangerously fast. When the driver got out of sight, he lost control of his car, crossed the center line of the road and hit a pickup truck head-on. Both drivers died. The driver’s family sued various officials and the City alleging negligence and vicarious liability.
The court granted summary judgment for the police officers and the city. It found there was no duty for police to ‘contain’ a suspect and the decision to stop a suspect was discretionary, entitling the officers to qualified official immunity.
The parents made two motions to vacate the summary judgment. These motions were denied by the court, and they appealed. They argued summary judgment was not proper because the officers breached their duty of care in failing to contain the driver of the sedan and pursuing him. Public officers and employees have immunity from tort liability for the exercise of discretionary functions. This is protection from liability for good faith judgment calls made where the law surrounding the conduct is uncertain.
For example, officers have a duty to drive with care by statute, but they are exempt from speed limits. The appellate court further explained that public officials in Kentucky are not required to insure every person’s safety and are not personally accountable because they have a general duty to protect the public. The appellate court explained the actions of the police officers were discretionary and they were entitled to qualified official immunity. Only a qualified attorney with experience with motor vehicle accidents should help you make the decision about pursuing a motor vehicle accident lawsuit against an officer of the law or a municipal entity.
Though in this case the courts found in favor of the defendants, that may not always be the case. We can review the circumstances of your case and help you decide if you should pursue legal action. Contact us at 270-781-6500 or via our online form.
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