Kentucky & Ohio Supreme Courts Address Police, Government Liability For Damage Caused During Vehicle Pursuits

Author:Mr Judd Uhl and Joelle Nelson
Profession:Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP

Fort Wright, Kentucky (January 8, 2019) - Two recent decisions, one from the Supreme Court of Kentucky and the other from the Supreme Court of Ohio, addressed the issue of liability for police officers and political subdivisions, respectively, following claims that arose from motor vehicle accidents caused during suspect vehicle pursuits. The two courts took opposing views, with one expanding liability and the other limiting it. This alert provides a summary of these cases.

Kentucky Expands Liability for Officers

In Gonzalez v. Johnson, 581 S.W.3d 529 (Ky. 2019), the Supreme Court of Kentucky held that: (1) insofar as Chambers v. Ideal Pure Milk Co., 245 S.W.2d 589 (Ky. 1952) holds that an officer cannot be the proximate or legal cause of damage inflicted on a third-party by a fleeing suspect, Chambers is overruled; and (2) an officer can be the cause-in-fact and legal cause of damages inflicted upon a third party as a result of a negligent pursuit.

In the case before the circuit court, a third-party decedent was killed when a criminal suspect crashed into his vehicle during a high-speed chase initiated by a deputy sheriff. The deputy witnessed the criminal suspect allegedly involved in a drug deal, run a red light and, without authorization, began to pursue the suspect. As a result of this unauthorized pursuit, there were notably a number of factors that the court cited that were of particular concern.

First, it had been raining, making the well-traveled road slippery. Second, the cruiser that the deputy was using that evening was a K-9 unit. The partition in the cruiser was unlocked, and the restless dog was able to poke his head through the partition into the front seat. Lastly, while the lights on the deputy's cruiser were functioning, the siren was not. The deputy claimed he did not realize the siren was broken until two miles into the pursuit. The deputy testified that, although he knew pursing a suspect without his siren violated KRS 189.940 and the county Sheriff Department's practices, he continued the pursuit for about another mile. Immediately after the deputy decided to terminate the pursuit, the suspect's vehicle fishtailed out of control and hit the decedent's car.

The decedent's estate filed a wrongful death suit against the deputy sheriff and the Sheriff's Department. The circuit court granted summary judgment for the defendants based on the precedent set in Chambers, and the Kentucky Court of Appeals affirmed. However, the...

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