Personal Injury Car Accident - Police in Pursuit of a Suspect not in Reckless Disregard
Police chase a suspect and, as a result in some part, there is a crash into the car of a young woman who suffers serious injuries. The Court eloquently states the issue and conclusion to this case at the beginning of its opinion:
This case raises the issue of whether the City of New York (the "City") is immune from liability when a patrol officer operating a vehicle closely pursues a traffic violator at high speed and in the wrong direction without contacting the police dispatcher. For the reasons set forth below this Court finds that the City is immune.
What happened? The roads were wet and dark. The police pursued a suspect on a high speed chase. The Police Officer did not contact the police dispatcher prior to the pursuit of the fleeing vehicle. "At first P.O. Cuenca was two car lengths behind Holmes' vehicle, but when Holmes reached the intersection of Empire Blvd. and Troy Ave., Cuenca was less than a car length behind. After reaching the intersection, Holmes made a left turn onto Troy Avenue, which is a one way street, in the wrong direction and collided with plaintiff Sara Fuch's ("plaintiff" or "Fuchs") vehicle, which was stopped at a red light. Plaintiff sustained injuries." Fuchs was seriously injured by the crash and this lawsuit was brought. The City moves for Summary Judgment on the basis of the New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1104:
VTL § 1104 affords the City immunity from liability for certain actions taken by the P.O. in pursuing the suspect. Pursuant to VTL § 1104(a), the first criterion for immunity is that the driver of the authorized emergency vehicle was involved in an "emergency operation," which VTL § 114-b defines as "pursuing an actual or suspected violator of the law." ...The second criterion for immunity under VTL § 1104 is that the driver of the emergency vehicle engaged in specific conduct exempted from the rules of the road by VTL § 1104 (b). Any other injury-causing conduct of such a driver is governed by the principles of ordinary negligence. Kabir v County of Monroe, 16 NY3d 217, 220 (2011)...The third criterion for VTL § 1104 immunity is that the authorized emergency vehicle used the prescribed audible and visual signals. VTL § 1104(c)...The fourth criterion for VTL § 1104 immunity is that the driver of the emergency vehicle acted with due regard for the safety of others and did not act in "reckless disregard for the safety of others."
Certain things are clear - that the police were involved in an emergency operation, pursuing the fleeing suspect, and that the emergency vehicle used the audible and visual signals alerting other drivers of the same pursuant to VTL § 1104(c) - the first and third criteria are met. The Court finds, that although P.O. Cuenca exceeded the speed limit and drove the wrong way down a one-way street, this is exempted pursuant to VTL § 1104 and is not reckless driving. Why one might ask - the police needed to catch the other car and stop the danger that the suspect pursued by police caused.
The import of this case appears to be the reckless disregard standard - was this police officer operating in such a manner that it was in reckless disregard for the injured party; Ms. Fuchs? The Court defines this standard:
The "reckless disregard" standard requires proof that the officer "intentionally committed an act of an unreasonable character in disregard of a known or obvious risk that was so great as to make it highly probable that harm would follow" and "has done so with conscious indifference to the outcome." Frezzell v City of New York, 24 NY3d 213, 217 (2014); Rios v City of New York, 144 AD3d 1011, 1011-1012 (2nd Dept. 2016); Daly v. County of Westchester, 63 AD3d 988, 989 (2nd Dept. 2009). Considering the totality of circumstances, the P.O.'s failure to contact the dispatcher was not reckless. See, Turini v. County of Suffolk, 8 AD3d 260, 262 (2nd Dept. 2004) (Police officer's alleged failure to follow the general standards of care articulated in Suffolk County Police Department's procedure manual did not provide an independent basis to impose liability upon the defendants); Teitelbaum v. City of New York, 300 AD2d 649, 650 (2nd Dept. 2002)(Police officer's alleged violation of internal guidelines relating to pursuits failed to establish that his conduct was reckless).
The Court finds that the police were pursuing a suspect who, as opposed to letting him get away, was the cause of the injury suffered here not the police chasing that suspect. "In view of the fact that Holmes defied the police in refusing to stop and then proceeded to speed into opposing traffic, it was entirely reasonable for P.O. Cuenca to pursue Holmes right away without stopping to call the dispatcher." The criminal act allowed the police to act in such a matter. Indeed, the Court finds that "as a matter of law, this Courts finds that Holmes' operation of his vehicle, not the manner in which the police officers conducted their pursuit, was the proximate cause of the accident." The pursuit of the police, in going down one-way streets on wet roads, was justified and, therefore, the police enjoy immunity.
In sum, the Court finds that the motion for summary judgment, avoiding a jury for those non-lawyers, should be granted in favor of the Police Officer Defendants - the case is dismissed and Ms. Fuchs cannot recover against the police officers for her personal injuries.
The case is Fuchs v. City of New York, 2017 N.Y. Slip Op 27301 (Sup. Ct. 2017).