Exceptions exist everywhere in law. Although people in their normal and daily lives are expected to stop at a red light and follow the speed limit, police officers need not do so when responding to emergencies. Of course, this exception makes sense. Imagine what would happen if a police officer has to respond to a shooting but has to sit in traffic. But should police officers be free from any liability for the damages they may cause while responding to an emergency?
Near a convenience store situated on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, Kim White met a man she knew from the neighborhood. The man asked White whether she could help him purchase heroin. White agreed and got into the man’s car, and the two drove around in search for heroin. Little did White know, the man’s car was stolen. A short while later, White and the man noticed that a police car was tailing them. Rather than stopping, the man accelerated, and a high speed chase ensued. Eventually, the man stopped the car at a parking lot. Though the man ran away, White was struck by a police cruiser. White filed a lawsuit against the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office. At trial, White testified that, upon exiting the vehicle, she had her hands up and surrendered to the police. On cross-examination, however, a prior deposition revealed that White had not raised her hands at the time of crash.
Deputy Paul Gegenheimer was the officer whose vehicle crashed into White. He testified that White appeared to be running away and that he did not intentionally run his vehicle into White. He stated that he was going around five to ten miles per hour when he hit White. Deputy Johnnie Petit, Jr., another officer who was involved in the chase, testified that he did not see Deputy Gegenheimer’s vehicle strike White. Deputy Mike Tisdale arrived at the scene two minutes after the crash and noted that White was in considerable amounts of pain. However, he did not notice any error in Deputy Gegenheimer’s driving. Major Kerry Najolia, director of training for the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, testified that officers were immune under La. R.S. 32:24 from liability for any accidents they cause during pursuits of a stolen vehicle. The Trial Court denied relief for White. White appealed, arguing that La. R.S. 32:24 did not apply in her case.
La. R.S. 32:24 allows a driver of an authorized emergency vehicle to disregard the general rules of the road when in pursuit of an actual or suspected lawbreaker. However, the driver may not drive with reckless disregard for the safety of others. Where a party asks an appellate court to reverse a trial court’s decision because it believes the trial court misinterpreted the facts of the case, the appellate court may only reverse the trial court’s decision if the trial court’s decision is “clearly wrong.” Rosell v. ESCO, 549 So.2d 840, 844 (La. 1989). To determine whether the decision is clearly wrong, the appellate court must look to see whether there was reasonable factual basis for the trial court’s decision. Stobart v. State, Department of Transportation and Development, 617 So.2d 880, 882 (La. 1993).
In White’s case, the Appellate Court determined that Deputy Gegenheimer did not drive with reckless disregard for the lives of others. Examining the record, the Appellate Court found that White simply exited the vehicle at an inopportune time. It reasoned that the officers were engaged in a car chase and were not expecting White to exit the vehicle. Because the officers were trying to box in the stolen vehicle, the Appellate Court ruled that La. R.S. 32:24 applied and gave Deputy Gegenheimer immunity.
Unfortunately for White, she was denied any relief because of La. R.S. 32:34. Though one may feel sympathetic for White’s plight, one must also realize that without such a statute, police officers would not be able to act as efficiently in emergency situations.
Additional Sources: White v. Normand
Written by Berniard Law Firm Blog Writer: Peter Lee
Additional Berniard Law Firm Articles on Officer Immunity: Officer Immunity for Damages to Third Party While in Pursuit of Suspect Affirmed