Every car accident has a story. As a Panama City accident law firm, a key part of our job is understanding the specific story behind a given crash and then conveying that to the courts in order to help victims receive due compensation for their injuries. While it isn't the storyline most people expect, accidents involving police officers and official vehicles, including accidents where the officer is at fault, do occur, and these collisions can raise unique legal challenges.
According to WJGH, an unnamed 32-year-old police officer was driving a marked patrol car heading west on Highway 98 around 2:00 P.M. on Thursday afternoon. Investigators report the officer approached the intersection between the 1000 block of 98 and Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard, but he neglected to slow down for vehicles stopped at a traffic light. His patrol car collided with the back of a pick-up truck, badly damaging both vehicles. Paramedics transported both drivers to the hospital with non-life threatening injuries. As of the WJGH article, police had not released the names of the drivers, nor have they commented on whether the officer was responding to a call at the time of the accident.
Earlier this year, The Orlando Sentinel published a report noting that every day, 20 police cars crash into something in Florida, whether it is another vehicle, a person, or an object such as a sign or utility pole. Their investigation concluded that 20 people die from these crashes every year. Additionally, 2,400 individuals are hurt in Florida police vehicle crashes, and the accidents lead to $25 million in property damage.
The study also looked at fault in the 7,400 crashes annually that involve police officers in official department vehicles, a total that accounts for 1 in every 44 Florida collisions. They concluded that in 1 in 4 cases, the officer is at least partly at fault. Perhaps not surprisingly, officers receive citations far less often than other drivers with at-fault civilians receiving citations in over 64% of cases, while at-fault officers face citations in fewer than 11% of incidents.
Looking more closely at the data, the investigation concluded that most crashes involving official police vehicles occur when the officer is simply driving rather than when the officer is in pursuit of a suspect or racing to an emergency scene. Overall, accidents tended to be due to driving carelessly or speeding. Notably, 26 officers took part in 4 or more crashes between 2006 and 2010. The human cost can't be measured, but the accidents led to more than $126 million in property damage during the same 5 year span.
Police and other government employees are not allowed free rein on the road. Officers can exceed the speed limit during an emergency, but only when they can do so safely. Exact policy varies by department, with some specifically requiring officers go no more than 20 miles above the limit.
In some cases, a victim injured by a speeding police officer can bring a negligence (or, if appropriate, wrongful death) claim in state court. Generally, the plaintiff will need to show the officer's act was the proximate cause of the bystander's injury. Notably, Florida law does include a specific waiver of sovereign immunity in tort cases against the state or an agency based on a negligent of wrongful act/omission by any employee. This is important because, absent a specific waiver, sovereign immunity bars a legal claim against the federal or state government and may also apply to local authorities. The statute does, however, sharply limit damages to $200,000 per claim or $300,000 per incident. A plaintiff can sometimes ask the legislature to pass a special bill to cover a higher settlement or verdict.
There are other statutes that might apply to a given officer-involved accident case. One law is Chapter 42, Section 1983 of the United States Code. That section is often used in civil rights claims, but can also apply more broadly to victims who are injured or suffer a loss of rights due to the actions of a government official. However, section 1983 claims may require more truly wrongful behavior, with decisions sometimes requiring the officer's actions "shock the conscience" before allowing civil liability under the statute.
One important lesson to remember from this discussion can be applied more broadly - If you are a victim, you have rights and should not be intimidated by the stature of the person who caused the injury. Do not be afraid to seek legal help, even if an accident involved a police officer or other the circumstances contain other challenging details. We represent people injured in Panama City. We will help you sort through the details and get you the compensation you deserve.