On March 28 of this year, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that innocent passengers unwittingly involved in a high speed pursuit case can sue the police for damages caused, in part, by a reckless disregard of proper police procedure. In so ruling, the Court of Appeals noted that the police pursuit statute found at O.C.G.A. § 40-6-6(d)(2) was enacted by the Georgia Legislature to protect the rights of the innocent. Whether an innocent person is either inside or outside of a vehicle is not relevant. The question is, whether the injured party filing a claim against the police was innocent of wrongdoing. If innocent, whether a passenger inside the vehicle or a pedestrian outside the vehicle or any other third party, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that such a person could bring a claim, again, provided they were innocent and were injured, in part, by a reckless disregard of proper police procedure.
Fleeing suspects who are injured or killed as a result of a high speed pursuit may not bring a claim for damages even if the police violate proper police procedure during the pursuit. The simple reason is that drivers who flee cannot be innocent. They are violating the law by fleeing which is in Georgia a felony. A passenger who has nothing to do with the flight and who does not control the vehicle and, in fact, asks that the vehicle be stopped so that they are not involved in a pursuit can pursue a remedy if they suffer damages as a result of a reckless disregard of proper police procedure. In the cases of McCobb and Powell v. Clayton County, the Georgia Court of Appeals held that innocent passengers who are injured during a high speed pursuit can sue not only the fleeing driver but also the police provided, of course, that not only are they innocent but that there is evidence of a reckless disregard of proper police procedure either during the decision to initiate the pursuit or continue the pursuit which contributed to or caused their damages.
Most high speed pursuits involve non-violent suspects who are either violating traffic laws or are wanted for some other non-violent offense. If during a pursuit third parties are unnecessarily and recklessly endangered thereby, proper police procedure requires that such a pursuit be terminated. It is not worth killing innocent persons to apprehend a suspect for a non-violent offense. However, if the suspect being pursued is a murderer, rapist or armed robber and is otherwise known to be dangerous and violent, then the dangers to the public can be justified even during a high speed pursuit because the need to apprehend is equal to or greater than the danger to the public caused by the pursuit.
The case of Cobb and Powell v. Clayton County is a good case because it supports the rights of the innocent to bring claims where police recklessly disregard proper police procedure. If an innocent teenager is out on a date and their date flees because of an open container, marijuana joint or otherwise, the innocent teenager passenger is not deprived of their rights. If a husband flees, if a date flees, if a friend flees, as long as the innocent passenger is not involved in the flight, does not encourage the flight, and is otherwise injured, they are no different in the eyes of the law than any other person on the roadway injured during a high speed pursuit. If injury or death is caused, in part, by a reckless disregard of proper police procedure during a pursuit, any innocent victim can file a suit for damages.
This good decision was just rendered by the Georgia Court of Appeals and involved clients of our firm. Our firm has long attempted to address cases where there is injury or death to an innocent third party caused by a reckless disregard of proper police procedure. High speed pursuits kill and injure hundreds, if not thousands, of people each year in the United States. In Clayton County, Georgia alone we are aware of eight (8) deaths over the last several years involving high speed pursuits. Innocent people have been killed in these chases, more than have been put to death in Georgia for heinous murder cases. The question is whether the deaths of the innocent can be justified when there are other alternatives and safer ways to apprehend the suspects at a later time and at a later place where injury or death is not likely to occur.