Cop Chases and Liability: Ohio State Supreme Court Will Hear If Police Departments Are Liable For Bystander Injuries Caused By Police Pursuits

On June 17, 1994, Los Angeles Police Officers began their pursuit of a white Ford Bronco on Interstate 405.   The white Ford Bronco contained O.J. Simpson and his best friend Al Cowlings.  This highly televised event lasted for over two hours and is by far one of the most famous car pursuits in modern time.

I still remember being in my middle school geography class watching the O.J. Simpson chase live on the news.  Everyone in the classroom was glued to the television wondering how the chase was going to end.  Thankfully, it was a peaceful outcome for everyone involved.

In all honesty, watching a police car chase on television can be very exciting.  Hell, you might even catch yourself cheering for either the police or the suspect trying to out run the police.  And with the news helicopter capturing every image of the chase, you have that bird’s eye view of all the obstacles awaiting the suspect.  Maybe there is a police road blockade ahead or maybe the suspect has to dodge the average citizen driving along minding his own business without a clue of the events unfolding.

Sometimes though, that average citizen that got caught up in the police chase gets hurt.  So who is responsible for those injuries?  The suspect?  The police officers?  Those questions are making their way up to the Ohio State Supreme Court.

In Argabrite v. Neer, Ms. Argabrite was seriously injured when a suspected burglar crashed his car into her while fleeing from Miami Township Police Officers.  The suspect was pursued by police for about seven minutes over six miles of streets and highways.  Trying to get away from police, the suspect drove into opposing traffic and collided head-on with Ms. Argabrite.  The suspect died at the scene.

Ms. Argabrite’s lawsuit against the police officers argues that the police officers are the proximate cause of her injuries.  Ms. Argabrite is asking the Ohio Supreme Court to find against prior appellate court decisions which hold that police conduct must be extreme or outrageous before it can be deemed the proximate cause of a crash that causes the injury to a bystander hit by the fleeing suspect.

Although this blog is geared more towards traffic and criminal law, I feel this case goes hand in hand with traffic law.  Thus, I will be following this case to see how the Ohio Supremes rule.

When I look at this case, a part of me wants police to be allowed to protect citizens and go after the bad guys, while the other part of me does not want society to be put in danger because of a fleeing suspect.

To put this into perspective, let’s use the classic scenario of your child (or loved one) is in immediate danger.

First Scenario:  Child is kidnapped from the mall and the police are following the suspect.  The suspect and police are weaving in and out of traffic to rescue that child.  I think we are okay with police doing this because we don’t want the child to be delivered into the evil he/she will face.  The thoughts of molestation, rape, child pornography, child sex slave, and murder are images that we all fear when a child is kidnapped.

Second Scenario:  Child is trapped on the fourth floor of an apartment building.  All the bystanders can do is stand by and watch until the fire fighters show up to rescue the child.  Hopefully they get there in time to save this helpless child.

In both scenarios, the child in question is in immediate danger.  However, we don’t see fire trucks and ambulances driving at high rates of speed to get to the child that can very well be burned alive.  We see the rescue vehicles slow down when approaching busy intersections and drive at a speed just slightly above the speed limit.  However, with police vehicles, we see them go flying down the road for multiple reasons.

Both the police and the fire fighters want to rescue the child.  How they get to the child is very different.

This is merely just some food for thought of how I believe the arguments can go about police chases.  The Ohio Supremes will ultimately have a tough decision to make with regards to police chases.

Side note, there are municipalities that do not allow for police to pursue suspects at high rates of speed to avoid incidents like Ms. Argabrite’s case.

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