Kentucky’s Court of Appeals recently examined a case involving liability for damages arising out of the pursuit of a fleeing suspect. In Pursifull v. Abner, 2015-CA-000879-MR, 2016 WL 5335515 (Ky. Ct. App. Sept. 23, 2016), a sheriff’s deputy was killed when an individual being pursued by two Kentucky State Police troopers crashed his vehicle into the deputy’s cruiser. The victim’s family sued the troopers, claiming the deputy’s death was the result of the troopers’ negligent pursuit.
The trial court entered summary judgment in favor of the troopers because it found causation could not be proven. Relying on Chambers v. Ideal Pure Milk Co., 245 S.W.2d 589 (Ky.1952), the trial court determined the criminal’s conduct – not the conduct of the pursuing troopers – was the proximate cause of the fatal accident.
The Court of Appeals agreed that “police cannot be made the insurers of the conduct of the culprits they chase,” and noted that “[w]hile the officer’s pursuit did cause the suspect to speed, the officers were not liable for the suspect’s negligent speed.” Pursifull at *4. The Court found support for its ruling by virtue of the fact that the criminal subsequently pled guilty to the murder of the deputy under a statute requiring a mental state “substantially more severe than mere negligent conduct.” Finally, in a nuanced observation, the Court noted the troopers were not arguing the criminal’s conduct was a superseding cause of the harm, but instead only that their actions were not the proximate or legal cause of the deputy’s death.
The Pursifull opinion is significant for at least two reasons. First, it provides an insightful analysis of proximate cause vs. cause-in-fact in the context of a police pursuit. Second, it establishes that summary judgment is still available in cases featuring substantially similar facts. For any questions about Pursifull v. Abner and/or pursuit of a fleeing suspect related issues, please contact the attorneys at Mazanec, Raskin & Ryder Co., L.P.A.