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Liability in Collisions Caused By On-Duty Police Officers

Think about the role of police in car accidents. Typically, they arrive to help coordinate injury care, prevent additional injury by directing traffic or cordoning off the scene, write tickets if appropriate, document events, and mediate between those involved in the crash. Sometimes, the scene is different. Sometimes a police car and one or more officers are involved in, even cause, the crash. It can be a bit nerve-wracking to be involved in a crash with a police car, even where the officer was at fault. Can you recover damages if you or a family member is injured in an officer-involved crash? That situation is the topic of today's blog entry by our Panama City police-involved car accident attorney.

Rider Killed When Deputy and Bicycle Collide

Officials continue to investigate an incident that occurred in Century at 12:41 A.M. on October 5. As recounted by Northwest Florida Daily News and, a 38 year-old Santa Rosa Deputy was driving his patrol car on Highway 4 in Escambia County when he and a 26 year-old bicycle rider collided. A report from the Florida Highway Patrol ("FHP") suggests the patrol car was in "emergency mode" and that the bicyclist was, "for unknown reasons," riding near the center of the roadway. The bicyclist was pronounced dead at the hospital.

On Friday, the Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office ("SRCSO") released an additional statement to answer questions about why the Deputy was in Escambia County. SRCSO explained that often there is no place open in the rural northern part of the County for meal breaks during overnight shifts so deputies go to Century for food. The Deputy had reportedly been making that trip when a call came out; the collision occurred during his return trip. An FHP investigation is underway as is an administrative investigation by the SRCSO. The Deputy is on leave pending the results of the investigations.

Two Routes for Recovery When an On-Duty Officer Is At Fault copcrash.jpg

There are two primary avenues for recovery available to someone who is injured by an on-duty police officer. The first is a state court negligence suit. Florida law specifically waives sovereign immunity in tort actions based on an employee's negligence. As a result, if you could normally bring suit against a private entity (ex. suing an employer for an accident caused by an on-the-job driver), then you can bring a personal injury or wrongful death claim against the state or state agency (ex. holding the state/agency liable if the employee negligently caused the accident). However, the statute sharply limits damages to $200,000 for each claim or $300,000 for each incident. In order to get more, the plaintiff must ask the state legislature to pass a specific bill authorizing payment.

The second option for recovering damages for injuries caused by an on-duty officer is a suit in federal court under 42 U.S.C. §1983. Claims under that law are generally known as civil rights actions. Broader than the name may imply, the statute applies to people who are injured or lose a right because of the actions taken by a government official. There is debate, but many believe a 1983 claim requires truly wrongful actions and some court decisions require actions that "shock the conscience." While this is (hopefully) a narrow grouping, a 1983 claim may be appropriate in some officer-involved auto accident cases.

Helping the Injured Recover in Light of Sympathetic Defendants

Some defendants can feel more mentally/emotionally/psychologically challenging to pursue than others. Clients sometimes hesitate to sue older individuals or people in public service roles (ex. firefighters, ambulance personnel, or police). However, the wrongfully injured have a right to compensation. This remains true even if the potential defendant is someone who elicits more sympathy, even an elderly police officer driving a van of underprivileged kids to camp. Do not be afraid of the sympathetic defendant. Our Panama City injury attorney is here to help.

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