Ohio Supreme Court – High Speed Pursuits and Police Officer Liability

When can a law enforcement officer be held responsible for an innocent person’s injuries sustained in an accident involving the high speed pursuit of a fleeing suspect? Given the dangerous nature of their jobs, officers have extra freedom in how they operate their vehicles when in pursuit of a suspect. Officers have a duty to apprehend suspects, and if fleeing suspects are not apprehended, they create danger for the public. Conversely, high speed pursuits pose a danger to motorists on the road at the time of the pursuit. Ohio law currently gives deference to officers in this situation. Under the law, an officer’s conduct only causes an innocent bystander’s injuries sustained in an accident involving a fleeing suspect when that officer’s conduct is “extreme or outrageous.”

That said, the Ohio Supreme Court has accepted jurisdiction over a case, Argabrite v. Neer, 2015-Ohio-125, 26 N.E.3d 879 (2nd Dist.), calling the current law into question. The innocent bystander plaintiff has argued that an officer involved in a high speed pursuit should be able to be considered the cause of an accident, and subsequently held liable for a bystander’s injuries, even when an officer’s conduct is not “extreme or outrageous”. The plaintiff argued that protection from liability should come solely from R.C. 2744.03(A)(6)(b), which provides immunity to an officer for a bystander’s injuries so long as the officer does not act willfully, wantonly, maliciously, in bad faith, or recklessly.

Argabrite involves the high speed pursuit of a burglary suspect, who, while being pursued by officers, swerved into traffic and crashed headfirst into the plaintiff. The plaintiff sued the officers involved for personal injuries resulting from the crash. The trial court dismissed the claim, finding that while the officers’ conduct was reckless, it did not cause the accident because the officers’ conduct was not “extreme or outrageous”. The Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Having accepted the injured driver’s appeal, the Ohio Supreme Court is now tasked with deciding whether the extreme or outrageous standard for causation is still appropriate. Plaintiff has argued that the law, by requiring extreme or outrageous conduct of officers to establish causation, has essentially abrogated the Ohio legislature’s determination in R.C. 2744.03 that the conduct required for liability is wanton and reckless conduct. Plaintiff argued that if the legislature wanted a different standard for officers pursuing suspects in high speed pursuits, it would have expressly created the exception. Plaintiff has also argued that if the extreme or outrageous standard remains, officers will essentially have free rein when pursuing fleeing suspects in their vehicles.

Conversely, the officers argued that they are not the insurers of fleeing suspects’ behavior, and as such, should not be responsible for a suspect’s actions absent extreme or outrageous conduct. The officers argued that it is the reckless conduct of a fleeing suspect, and not the conduct of an officer, that causes a plaintiff’s injuries. As such, an officer’s conduct should not be considered the cause of the injuries unless the officer did something extreme or outrageous. The officers also argued that removal of the extreme or outrageous standard will all but guarantee a suspect’s freedom so long as the suspect operates his/her vehicle in a manner so reckless that an officer will not be able pursue without risking personal liability.

As of right now, a decision is tentatively expected around late 2016 to early 2017. Argabrite is a case that should be monitored by all police departments throughout Ohio. If the Ohio Supreme Court rules in plaintiff’s favor, it will necessitate a thorough review of each department’s policy regarding the high speed pursuit of suspects, as it could result in more officers being held responsible for the reckless conduct of fleeing suspects.