California Appeals Court Reverses Immunity Granted to Police Department Following Car Chase Death

The California Court of Appeal for the Fourth District recently held that in order to avail itself of the statutory immunity granted to public entities from a death or injury resulting from police pursuits of suspected criminals, the entity must develop, adopt, promulgate, and provide regular and periodic training policies. Decedent Mike Wayne Morgan suffered fatal injuries when defendant Thomas Durnin crashed head-on into Morgan’s vehicle as Durnin was fleeing from Beaumont Police Officer Brian Stehli during a 12-minute car chase. The decedent’s widow and daughter filed suit, alleging wrongful death against defendants the City of Beaumont and the Beaumont Police Department (BPD).

The trial court granted summary judgment to the defendants, reasoning that they were immune from liability pursuant to section 17004.7 of the California Vehicle Code. This statute immunizes public entities from liability for injuries resulting from police pursuits of suspected criminals. In granting the motion, the court found that section 17004.7 applied because BPD had a policy and procedure regarding police pursuits in place.

The plaintiffs appealed, contending that the court erred in granting summary judgment because the defendants failed to adequately demonstrate that BPD promulgated a vehicle pursuit policy as defined by section 17004.7. The California appellate court agreed with the plaintiffs that the defendants failed to produce adequate evidence to prove that BPD promulgated its vehicle pursuit policy. The court therefore reversed the trial court’s decision.

Under California law, a public entity typically is liable for an individual’s death caused by a negligent act of an officer driving within the scope of his employment. Section 17004.7, however, establishes an exception when a public police department promulgates a “written policy on, and provides regular and periodic training on an annual basis for, vehicular pursuits,” and the death arises from such a pursuit.

Applying principles of statutory interpretation, the appeals court concluded that the language of section 17004.7, subdivision (b)(2) is unambiguous in its requirement that “all peace officers of the public agency certify in writing that they have received, read, and understand” the agency’s vehicle pursuit policy. In the case at issue, various iterations of the agency’s pursuit policy dated back years. The BPD therefore could not prove the certification required by subdivision (b)(2), which the court concluded must be in effect at the time of the collision.

Its conclusion that the relevant portion of the statute is unambiguous, the court reasoned, was further supported by the statute’s legislative history. In 2005, the legislature amended former section 17004.7. In its analysis, the Senate Committee on Public Safety explained that a “public agency that employs peace officers to drive emergency vehicles and authorizes vehicle pursuits shall develop, adopt, promulgate, and provide regular and periodic training for those peace officers.” The Senate Committee made clear that in order for a public agency to be immune, “the agency must not only adopt a written policy but promulgate it.” (Emphasis added by the court.)

The appeals court concluded that an agency cannot bypass the statutory requirements of promulgation set forth in section 17004.7 merely by adopting a general policy requiring all of its peace officers to “review and acknowledge” any change to an agency’s policy or polices. The mere “receipt” and “acknowledgment” of a policy revision does not satisfy the promulgation requirement of section 17004.7.

The defendants separately argued that summary judgment was properly granted because the trial court found the accident at issue did not occur as a result of the officer’s negligence because the chase ended prior to the collision. The trial court expressly refused to rely on negligence principles in reaching its holding because it relied on the immunity it believed was granted pursuant to the vehicle pursuit policy.

The appeals court concluded that at a minimum, there were triable issues of material fact on the issue of negligence and specifically causation sufficient to withstand summary judgment. First, the record was unclear as to whether the officer terminated the pursuit before, after, or at the same time as the collision. Furthermore, the record demonstrated that Durnin himself believed he was being pursued by the police at the time he collided with the officer. Stressing that breach of duty is ordinarily a question of fact that cannot be resolved by summary judgment, the court concluded that the defendants were not entitled to summary judgment based on negligence principles.

The court therefore reversed the holding of summary judgment for the defendants.

The personal injury lawyers at the Neumann Law Group represent victims of accidents throughout the Los Angeles area. Call us at (213) 227-0001 for a free consultation.

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