Police Immunity From Civil Liability Resulting From Vehicular Chases

by Low, Ball & Lynch
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Rosemary Morgan, et al. v. Beaumont Police Department, et al.

Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District (April 4, 2016)

Police Departments have historically enjoyed statutory immunity from any civil lawsuits resulting from injuries sustained during vehicular chases under the vehicle code.  This case concerns the burden the Police Department must carry to continue to enjoy the statutory immunity under the vehicle code for damage inflicted during vehicular pursuits.

Just before noon on March 17, 2011, Officer Brian Stehli (“Stehli”) was monitoring traffic on a city street when he saw a silver pick-up truck drive by with a large crack in its front windshield and a broken tail light.  Stehli pulled behind the pickup.  After calling in the pickup’s license plate number to dispatch, Stehli activated the lights and used the air horn once on his police cruiser as he followed behind the pickup.  Instead of stopping, however, the driver of the pickup, later identified as Thomas Durnin (“Durnin”), accelerated.  This led to a high speed car chase in which both Durnin and Stehli reached speeds of up to 90 miles per hour.  After a 12-minute car chase, Durnin’s vehicle crossed a double yellow line and crashed head on into another vehicle driven by Mike Morgan.  Mr. Morgan subsequently died from the injuries he sustained in the crash, while Durnin was convicted of second degree murder, among other things.

The widow and daughter of Mr. Morgan filed a complaint, which contained an allegation of wrongful death against the City of Beaumont and the Beaumont Police Department (“BPD”) (collectively “Defendants”).  Defendants filed a motion for summary judgment (“MSJ”) pursuant to Vehicle Code section 17004.7, which immunizes public entities from liability for injuries resulting from police pursuits of suspected criminals.  Defendants stated that they had a “policy and procedure” in place according to the statute regarding vehicle pursuits of suspects.  The trial court granted defendants’ MSJ after finding defendants had a policy and procedure in place and therefore the immunity under section 17004.7 applied.

The Court of Appeal reversed, finding that defendants had failed to provide sufficient evidence to establish as a matter of law that BPD had “promulgated” its vehicle pursuit policy as required under section 17004.7.  First, the Court looked at the statute in question and noted that the statute required that all peace officers certify in writing that they have “received, read, and understood” the policy.

The Court then looked at the holding in Nguyen v. City of Westminster (2002) 103 Cal.App.4th 1161 (“Nguyen”).  In Nguyen, an individual was killed after police officers chased a stolen van into a high school parking lot as classes were ending.  The van struck a trash dumpster that hit the decedent.  The Nguyen court “reluctantly” concluded summary judgment was properly granted under the former section 17004.7, which only required a department adopt a policy regarding vehicle chases.  Following Nguyen, the legislature amended  § 17004.7 and the Court examined the legislative history of the amendment.

The Court then turned to the evidence that BPD had submitted in support of their MSJ, which outlined their procedure for promulgating their vehicle chase policy.  BPD declared that they had hired a third party, Lexipool Risk Management Service (“Lexipool”), to assist with policy drafting and adopting.  Once a new policy was created, or revision to a policy was made, BPD would e-mail its officers, notifying them of the change and directing them to access the policy directly through Lexipool, or by accessing the department’s shared drive.  Employees would then acknowledge receipt of the policy by e-mail, although those e-mails were not maintained or preserved.  BPD also declared through one of its officers that the “vast majority” of officers complied with the email acknowledgement described above.  The Court found that evidence of “receipt” of an e-mail was insufficient to meet the requirements of the amended statute that all officers certify they had “received, read and understood” the policies in question.

The Court of Appeal thus held that an agency’s vehicle pursuit policy is not promulgated within the meaning of § 17004.7(b)(2) unless, at a minimum, “all” of its peace officers “certify in writing that they have received, read, and understood the policy.”

The Court declined to address the other ground for the appeal that the BPD training program did not meet the requirements of § 17004.7, which also requires periodic training on the vehicle pursuit policy.

Finally, the Court rejected the BPD’s argument that summary judgment was properly granted because the trial court alternatively found that the accident did not occur as a result of any negligence on the part of the officer as he had terminated the chase before the collision.  The Court ruled that there was a triable issue of fact on this point, as the high speed chase had gone on for 12 minutes, and because Durnin still believed he was being pursued by police at the time of the collision.

COMMENT

For public entities, this case serves as a warning to have a robust policy regarding vehicle pursuits and ensure all your officers receive it, read it, understand it, and undergo periodic training on the pursuit policy.  This will ensure the department enjoys the shield of immunity, while simultaneously – according to the legislature – reduce the number of innocent bystanders needlessly injured in course of vehicular pursuits.

For a copy of the complete decision, see: Morgan v Beaumont PD

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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