In any injury tort action, plaintiffs must prove defendants owed a duty of care to injured/deceased parties, breached that duty and proximately caused damage as a result.

policelightIn DUI injury cases, Florida plaintiffs have a myriad of options, depending on the circumstances. In situations where the drunk driver is identified and proven intoxicated, that person and his or her insurance company may be liable. The owner of the vehicle and/or his insurer may also be vicariously liable. If an establishment illegally served alcohol to someone who then causes a crash, that establishment may be held liable under state Dram Shop laws. And in some instances, other motorists who may have contributed to the crash could be held liable as well.

This last one was what plaintiffs alleged in Sellers v. Twp. of Abington, where parents of deceased asserted before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that police negligently and recklessly engaged in a high-speed pursuit of a suspected (and later proven) drunk driver, who then crashed, killing a passenger.

Our Fort Myers DUI injury lawyers know anytime a lawsuit is brought against a government entity, there will be challenges due to sovereign immunity. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule, but plaintiffs will still have to prove the government owed a duty of care to plaintiff/decedent.

In this case, trial court ruled local police did not owe a duty of care to the passenger of a fleeing vehicle when the existence or relationship to a fleeing driver is unknown to police. The state supreme court affirmed this ruling upon review.

Virtually all police departments have restrictive policies for high-speed police pursuits. A study by researchers at Florida State University noted most departments allowed for speeding in response to emergency situations (sometimes including pursuit of certain suspected criminals), though many agencies defined emergencies differently.

In pursuits, officers generally are made to consider:

  • The seriousness of the law violation committed by suspect
  • Department guidelines on pursuit driving
  • Existing traffic conditions
  • Road type and condition
  • Weather condition

Though many departments grant officers a broad range of discretion on these issues, an officer who aggressively pursues a suspect in spite of grave risk to other innocents may be held liable for proximate injuries.

In this case, however, decedent was not a bystander but rather a passenger in suspect vehicle. The suspect driver is still liable of course, but the duty owed by police to that passenger is different than the duty owed by police to others not in that vehicle – at least according to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

According to court records, three men spent the day drinking together and some time in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve asked a third to drive them to his residence so they could sleep there. No one fastened their seat belts. Driver later admitted he was drunk, and in fact had driven his friends home drunk on several occasions prior.

A police officer testified driver was operating erratically, and initiated a stop. Driver said he didn’t realize he was being pulled over, but did see the officer and “floored it” to get away in order to avoid a DUI arrest. Initially, the officer lost track, but then driver again noticed officer in the rear view and again “floored it.”

Decedent and the other passenger shouted at driver to slow down, knowing there was an upcoming dip in the road. Driver did not listen, struck the dip at a high rate of speed. The car went airborne, crashed into trees and a parked truck. Decedent was ejected and suffered catastrophic brain injury, and died.

Decedent’s parents filed a lawsuit against the township for the alleged negligent actions of officers. State law there says governmental immunity is applicable when official negligence occurs while plaintiff is in flight or fleeing apprehension or arrest. It wouldn’t apply if plaintiff was an innocent bystander, but it wasn’t clear if it would extend to “unknown passengers” in a fleeing vehicle.

The court ruled officers do not owe a duty of care to unknown passengers in a fleeing vehicle, and thus, the claim was dismissed.

Assuming the statute of limitations has not run out, plaintiffs may still have other options for pursuing litigation against other defendants (namely, the driver), but attorneys will have to weigh the wisdom of that action based on the facts.

If you have been a victim of a traffic accident, call Chalik & Chalik at (954) 476-1000 or 1 (800) 873-9040.

Additional Resources:
Sellers v. Twp. of Abington, Dec. 29, 2014, Pennsylvania Supreme Court

More Blog Entries:
Drunk Driving Fatalities, Injuries, Spike During New Year’s Celebrations, Dec. 27, 2014, Sarasota DUI Injury Lawyer Blog