Williams v. City of Omaha – Police Liability for Crash After Chase

Police chases may be exciting to watch on reality television, but for the innocent motorists and bystanders caught in the midst of one, the reality can turn tragic.
In these cases, where innocent people are injured as a result, those injured or survivors of those killed may be able to recover damages from the city/police agency involved – but it’s not easy. In North Carolina, it’s necessary to prove police officer(s) acted with gross negligence in their pursuit of a criminal. N.C. Gen. Stat. 20-145 states regular speed limits don’t apply to police in pursuit of suspected criminals, and authorities are often given great latitude of discretion in determining what is reasonable.

However, an officer who acts with “reckless disregard for the safety others” may be found to have committed gross negligence, and thus may be liable.

Laws vary from state-to-state, but the same general principle applies in many other jurisdictions, including Nebraska, where the recent pursuit-injury case of Williams v. City of Omaha was weighed by the Nebraska Supreme Court.

According to court records, a collision happened when one driver ran a stop sign and struck another, causing serious injury to the other driver. A short time there after, officers arrived and drove through the intersection to follow the at-fault driver, who was fleeing the scene. At that time, officers announced via radio they were in pursuit of that vehicle, but the supervisor issued an order terminating the pursuit a short time later.

The question was whether at the time of the collision, police were actively engaged in a pursuit against the at-fault driver. The law in Nebraska holds cities may be held strictly liable for injuries to innocents resulting from a chase.

Prior to the crash, an officer had observed the at-fault driver had expired tags on his vehicle. That officer activated his overhead lights with the intention of initiating a traffic stop. However, defendant vehicle did not stop. He continued through the stop sign, at which time the collision occurred.

The officer would later testify he was traveling at approximately 25 mph and only 2 to 3 seconds elapsed between the time he activated his overhead lights and the time of the crash. It was after the crash officers radioed to supervisors they were in pursuit – something protocol demands they do immediately.

Injured plaintiff sued the city. Trial court found the decision to pursue at-fault driver began moments before the collision, and thus, officers were in actual pursuit at the time of the crash and defendant city was liable. Court found city strictly liable and ordered it to pay a judgment of $172,000.

City appealed, but the state supreme court affirmed.

In North Carolina, as our Asheville injury attorneys can explain, there is no strict liability for police pursuits, and the standard of proof is a bit higher. Take for example the January 2013 North Carolina Court of Appeals case of Greene v. City of Greenville.

In this case, a police officer on a bicycle smelled marijuana in a passing vehicle. The officer was granted permission to take a cruiser to follow this driver. As he hoped to avoid immediate detection from the driver, he did not activate his lights or police sirens. When another car turned directly in front of the officer without using a signal, the officer was forced to slam on the breaks and swerve left. He lost control and struck another vehicle. Tragically, both the officer and the driver of that other car were killed.

In examining whether officer’s actions were grossly negligent, court looked at:

  • Reason for the pursuit
  • Probability of injury to the public as a result of decision to begin and maintain pursuit
  • Officer’s conduct during pursuit

These factors tend to be analyzed in a light favorable to officers, and here, trial court determined it did not rise to the level of gross negligence, and appeals court affirmed.

Contact our Carolina personal injury lawyers at Lee Law Offices today by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Williams v. City of Omaha, July 2015, Nebraska Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
George v. Cooper – Liability Admission Only Partial Victory, July 2, 2015, Asheville Injury Lawyer Blog

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