Nebraska Looking To Tighten Pursuit Liability

A state lawmaker wants to change a law that holds cities liable for injuries to people hurt by a fleeing suspect after officers deem a high-speed chase too dangerous and end the pursuit.

Lincoln Sen. Tony Fulton on Friday introduced a bill (LB447) that would address a 2006 ruling by the Nebraska Supreme Court that cities can be held responsible in such cases. The high court ruled in a case in which the city of Omaha was ordered to pay $1.5 million to two men seriously injured after a police chase.

“What I propose to do here is to draw a line when the chase actually ends,” Fulton said. “There has to be some measure that says the chase has ended. If one instigates a chase and then is held liable for all that occurs after the chase … it’s completely unreasonable.”

Douglas County District Judge Peter Bataillon rejected the city’s argument that it should not have been held liable for the men’s injuries because the officer decided the pursuit was becoming too dangerous and already had backed off the chase when the crash happened.

“That’s where the debate is going to occur here,” Fulton said. “Where should the line be drawn?”

Nebraska cities are liable under state law for injuries to innocent people in crashes that stem from police chases.

Former Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha crafted the police chase liability law. He protected it vigorously until leaving office in 2008 under term limits. He believed police pursuits were irresponsible and dangerous and argued that the government should be required to financially protect people, regardless of whether police were at fault.

The law and court rulings have forced changes in police-chase policies over the years.

In Lincoln, the policy requires officers to weigh risk factors, such as whether the suspect is driving against oncoming traffic and running red lights at high speeds. The officer also must consider the seriousness of the offense, Police Chief Tom Casady said.

This week, the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners agreed to pay $75,000 toward a future larger payment to a man who was severely injured when his truck was hit by a car being chased by Lancaster County sheriff’s deputies.

Bataillon originally set the amount of damages for one of the men in the Omaha case at $2.9 million but ruled that state law caps liability for cities at $1 million per person.

The city was ordered to pay $1 million to Jimmie Joe Staley and $500,000 to Joshua McGrath for injuries they suffered when their truck burst into flames after being hit by a car driven by a man fleeing police.

Staley sustained lung damage and severe burns on two-thirds of his body. McGrath suffered a broken pelvis, a broken facial bone and burns on one-third of his body.

The city had argued that it should not have been held responsible because the police officer had called off the pursuit a half-mile before the crash.

Bataillon rejected that argument. The driver of the fleeing car, Michael Barnes, testified that he couldn’t tell whether the cruiser was still behind him because he was going downhill. The crash happened 20 to 30 seconds after the officer called off the chase.

Barnes testified that he still felt as though the police cruiser was right behind him and that he was still being pursued.

The chase began on April 14, 2000, when Sgt. Preston Sears saw Barnes skid into an intersection on a red light, back up and then drive through the intersection on a green light.

When Sears tried to pull over Barnes’ car, Barnes sped off, beginning a chase that lasted several blocks.

In 2002, the high court ruled that a State Patrol chase of a schizophrenic suspect was at least partly responsible for a three-vehicle crash that killed a woman and injured three others.

The accident happened Aug. 5, 1995, in West Point, and 61-year-old Ramona Meyer was killed. Muriel Bacus of Elkhorn and her two young sons, Richard and Kyle, were seriously injured.

Patrol Sgt. Gerald Sieck chased Donald Poston of Springfield for 26 miles on U.S. 275 at speeds up to 120 mph after clocking Poston’s van at 94 mph west of Wisner.

Sieck testified that it appeared no matter what he did, including ending the pursuit, Poston would continue to flee.

Poston drove into West Point. When his car struck a van driven by Meyer, it went airborne and crashed into Bacus’ station wagon.

Poston was not injured, and, by reason of insanity, he was found innocent of motor vehicle homicide and four counts of second-degree assault.

The high court ruled that Poston clearly was trying to evade police during the chase and the patrol was at least partly responsible for the crash.

In that ruling, Judge Kenneth Stephan said that while Poston’s case was different, “this fact does not automatically insulate the city from strict liability for injuries to an innocent third party.”

“A law enforcement officer’s decision and action to terminate a vehicular pursuit do not instantaneously eliminate the danger to innocent third parties,” he said. “That danger continues until the motorist reasonably perceives that the pursuit has ended and has an opportunity to discontinue the hazardous, evasive driving behaviors contemplated in the statute.”

Courtesy: Journal Star

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