Vernon Parish Car Wreck Leads Court to Explore the Duty of Police to Secure Scene of an Accident

Under Louisiana law, police officers, troopers, and sheriff’s deputies have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect the general public from dangerous situations on the road. This responsibility commonly includes removing foreign objects from the roadway or securing car accident scenes to ensure no further collisions occur. In general, an officer is charged with responding to any hazardous traffic condition to reduce the risk of accidents and injuries.

The case of Johnson v. Larson, 441 So. 2d 5 (La. Ct. App., 3rd Cir. 1983) presented a situation which tested the bounds of an officer’s duty. Shortly before midnight on June 27, 1978, Johnny Johnson was driving his car west on La. Hwy. 10 in Vernon Parish. He happened to come upon his friend, Tannie Rhodes, whose car was experiencing transmission trouble. Rhodes pulled her vehicle onto the shoulder, completely clear of the travel lane. She left the headlights on and activated her car’s hazard flashers. Johnson passed Rhodes, turned his car around, and parked on the shoulder directly facing Rhodes’s vehicle. Johnson left his headlights on so he could see under the hood of Rhodes’s car. Several minutes later, two Vernon Parish sheriff’s deputies arrived at the scene and asked if Johnson and Rhodes were “having trouble.” Rhodes answered yes, but no other words were exchanged. The deputies remained at the scene for a few minutes and, after receiving no request for help from either Johnson or Rhodes, they left. Soon after the deputies departed, a car heading west on Hwy. 10 driven by Matthew Larson, a soldier stationed at Fort Polk, swerved onto the shoulder of the road and collided with the rear of Rhodes’s car. The impact forced the two parked cars together. Johnson happened to be standing between the parked cars at the time and sustained severe injuries to his legs as a result of the impact.

Following the incident, Johnson reached a settlement with Larson. He then brought suit against the deputies and Vernon Parish Sheriff’s Department alleging the deputies’ negligence in failing to take precautionary steps that could have prevented the collision by Larson’s vehicle. At trial, after the close of the plaintiff’s evidence, the judge granted the deputies’ motion for dismissal finding that the officers were not negligent in their actions as they owed no duty to secure the scene under the circumstances. From this judgment, Johnson appealed.

The Court of Appeals reviewed several prior Louisiana cases to help determine what circumstances require an officer to secure a hazardous traffic condition in an effort to reduce the risk of further harm. In one case, it was determined that a deputy was required to secure an accident scene where one of the vehicles involved partially blocked a travel lane in the roadway. In another, the court confirmed that an officer is required to take action to prevent collisions at an intersection with a malfunctioning traffic signal. And in a third case, it was determined that an officer escorting a funeral vehicle procession had a duty to protect the procession from oncoming vehicles who would otherwise have the right-of-way.

In applying the principles contained in the case law to Johnson’s situation, the court found that “the deputies, under the facts presented, did not have a legal duty to protect the parked vehicles against the unforeseeable traffic development that occurred in this case” (Johnson, 441 So. 2d at 9). The court noted several key facts, including that there were no obstructions to vision on the highway and that both Johnson’s and Rhodes’ cars were parked on the shoulder of the road, completely clear of the travel lanes. Both cars’ lights were on, and Rhodes had activated her emergency flashers. Based on these facts, the court concluded that the two well-lighted vehicles parked on the shoulder created no obvious, dangerous condition for any other motorists. In the court’s view, the deputies could not be expected to anticipate that a driver would leave the highway and strike Rhodes’ vehicle. “To hold otherwise would place an unreasonable burden upon our law enforcement officers and agencies” (Johnson, 441 So. 2d at 9).

The Johnson case shows that although officers have a duty to protect the public, they are afforded some discretion in determining which situations warrant their intervention. While Louisiana residents can and should count on their law enforcement officers in emergency situations, the Johnson case serves as a caution that challenging an officer’s decision not to render assistance is not necessarily a straightforward task.

If you have been injured in a car accident, call the Berniard Law Firm toll-free at 1-866-574-8005 to speak with an attorney who can help.