By Christina Denning
A recent California appeals court decision could have significant ramifications for police departments by making them less immune from claims for injuries or death occurring during a high speed chase.
The April ruling on Rosemary Morgan et. al. v. Beaumont Police Department centered on an event that occurred in 2011 when an innocent man driving a vehicle was struck and killed during a high-speed chase.
The lawsuit was filed by Higgs Fletcher & Mack in Riverside County on behalf of Morgan, the widow, and Michelle Luna, the daughter, of Mike Wayne Morgan. Mike Morgan suffered fatal injuries when Thomas Durnin, who was fleeting from a Beaumont Police officer after an attempted traffic stop, crashed head-on into Morgan’s vehicle.
At the motion for summary judgment stage, the trial court held that law enforcement was immune from liability, citing a vehicle statute that immunizes public entities from liability for injuries resulting from police pursuits of suspected criminals under certain circumstances. In granting the motion, the court found that the department had a “policy and procedure in place,” and that, alone, was sufficient to render immunity from liability.
Our team, which included other local attorneys Rebecca Reed and Ken Stone, appealed, arguing that a 2009 amendment to the California vehicle code statute only gives a police department immunity if it complies with a requirement that the police pursuit policy is “promulgated” to all officers sufficient for them to understand and conform to it.
In this case, the 4th District Court of Appeal found there was no evidence that the Beaumont Police Department did in fact promulgate its vehicle pursuit policy to its officers. Because of this, the public entity can be held liable under California law “for death or injury to person or property proximately caused by a negligent or wrongful act or omission in the operation of any motor vehicle by an employee of the public entity acting within the scope of his employment.”
The importance of this case is that the Court of Appeal, for the first time, interpreted this statute to mean that every officer will have to attest to receiving, reading and understanding the department’s police pursuit policy, including every amendment to it. Further, a signed form must be kept in each officer’s file as proof of promulgation.
This has significant impacts for regional and local law enforcement that may not have this level of practice in place. It is also conceivable that it will be take a while before every agency puts such measures in place. Until then, plaintiffs will be able to overcome the immunity defense with this case law, significantly shifting the tide in lawsuits like this that are often adjudicated in favor of the law enforcement agencies.
For now, I expect we will see a rise in these types of suits as families of victims recognize the greater potential for achieving a successful outcome.
Christina Denning practices personal injury law as a partner with Higgs Fletcher & Mack. She litigates a wide array of disputes from the claim stage through arbitration or trial and post-judgment collection efforts.