We previously reported on a case making its way through our court system that determined police officer liability in high speed pursuits (Click HERE to read our prior blog post). On December 27, 2016, the Ohio Supreme Court issued its ruling concerning potential officer liability. That ruling held that a police officer’s liability is determined by reference to the immunity standards in Ohio Revised Code Chapter 2744, not whether the officer’s conduct was extreme or outrageous. Argabrite v. Neer, 2016-Ohio-8374.
The case before the Court involved the pursuit of a burglary suspect, who, while being pursued by officers, swerved into traffic and crashed headfirst into an innocent bystander. The bystander sued the officers involved for personal injuries resulting from the crash. The trial court dismissed her claim, finding that the officers’ conduct did not cause her injuries. The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s decision.
Both the trial court and the court of appeals relied on the “proximate cause rule,” which says that officers are only liable for an innocent bystander’s injuries suffered as a result of a pursuit if the officers’ conduct was extreme or outrageous. The bystander appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court, claiming that the “proximate cause rule” effectively provided immunity greater than that provided by R.C. 2744, which provides immunity so long as the officers do not act wantonly, maliciously, in bad faith, or recklessly.
Unfortunately, the Ohio Supreme Court agreed and abolished the proximate cause rule as being contrary to the immunity provided in R.C. 2744. Specifically, the Court held that the “proximate cause rule” shielded an officer from liability unless the officer acted in an extreme or outrageous manner, thereby effectively and improperly extending immunity to an officer who acts wantonly or recklessly even though the officer is not immune from that conduct under R.C. 2744. The Court further stated that if the legislature wanted to expand the limits of the immunity that applies to officers who pursue fleeing suspects, it could have created this standard via statute, but the courts may not.
Notwithstanding the abolishment of the proximate cause rule, the Court found the officers to be immune under R.C. 2744 because their conduct was not wanton, malicious, in bad faith, or reckless. In finding the officers were immune, the Court considered whether the officers knowingly violated policy and whether the officers knew that their conduct would in all probability result in injury. The Court found that the officers unknowingly violated departmental policy, but that there was no evidence that they knew their conduct would in all probability result in injury. In so holding, the Court relied on the fact that the officers engaged in the pursuit at a distance and at reasonable speed, that the weather conditions were light and sunny, that the lead officers called out street names over the radio so that other officers would know their location and the direction in which they were heading, and that the lead officers used their overhead lights and sirens throughout the pursuit.
In conclusion, while the Ohio Supreme Court’s decision in Argabrite make it more difficult for officers to avoid liability in high speed pursuits, the Court did give guidance as to how to best avoid liability. Specifically, if you are aware of a policy, ensure it is followed. Additionally, if you believe that your conduct will probably result in another’s injury, cease the pursuit. Finally, make sure you pursue at a reasonable distance and at a reasonable speed, consider weather conditions in determining whether to initiate or continue a pursuit, and ensure you are using your lights and sirens.
It is now more important than ever for each and every police department throughout Ohio to thoroughly review its policies regarding the pursuit of suspects and for all policies to incorporate the standards laid out by the Court so as to decrease their officers’ risk of liability when pursuing a fleeing suspect.