Innocent bystanders are sometimes the unwitting victims of high-speed chases on Nevada roads. Fleeing suspects can drive well above the speed limit, often recklessly moving in and out of lanes, sometimes even moving in front of oncoming traffic. Police officers who give chase are faced with a difficult choice: end the pursuit and allow the dangerous suspect to escape or continue the chase even if it creates risk for the public. Bystanders who are injured during a high-speed chase can sue the suspect for damages, but can they also sue the police department?
Suing the suspect
A suspect in a high-speed chase bears responsibility for the property damage and personal injuries caused during the course of a pursuit. In the context of a civil trial, the reckless nature of a high-speed chase, in which the suspect drives with complete disregard for the safety of other people on the road, will often support a claim of gross negligence against the suspect.
In the criminal proceeding that follows a high-speed chase a court may order the suspect to pay restitution to injured bystanders. The restitution that forms part of a criminal sentence is limited to damages that are relatively easy to account for: medical expenses, lost wages, property damage, and estimated costs of future treatment. A criminal court can’t order restitution for subjective kinds of damages, like pain and suffering or psychological trauma associated with an accident. A civil lawsuit needs to be filed against the suspect to recover for these types of injuries.
The problem with lawsuits against a criminal suspect (or a convict) is that an individual often lacks the financial resources to compensate an injured plaintiff for the full scope of his or her injuries. The defendant’s auto insurance policy probably disclaims liability for intentionally tortious acts, leaving only the defendant’s personal assets available for plaintiffs to collect against.
Sovereign immunity limits suits against police departments
The relatively deep pockets of a police department may tempt injured victims to consider a lawsuit against the officers involved in the chase, as well as their employer. But Nevada law limits the liability of the state and its subdivisions, including the police departments of counties and cities. Under NRS 41.032, officers and their employing departments are immune from civil lawsuits for damages arising from an officer’s “exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty.” The Nevada Supreme Court has defined a “discretionary act” as an action that “requires personal deliberation, decision, and judgment.” Maturi v. Las Vegas Metro. Police Dep’t, 110 Nev. 307, 309 (1994). The decision to pursue a fleeing suspect, being at the discretion of the pursuing officer, will often fall into this definition.
An exception for sovereign immunity can apply where an officer deliberately causes an injury, or where the officer behaves in a completely reckless manner. Sovereign immunity probably wouldn’t apply if an officer plowed through a crowd of bystanders to get to a fleeing suspect. Fortunately, such cases are rare. Note that even in such circumstances punitive damages are not available in civil suits against state or local agencies. NRS 41.032.
Consult with a personal injury lawyer
The attorneys at the law firm of Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez have broad experience with personal injury cases in the Las Vegas area. We work with both citizens and first responders to resolve legal problems with professionalism and care. For a free attorney consultation, call us at 702-388-4476 or send us a request through our site.