Woodland Hills personal injury lawyer Barry P. Goldberg regularly receives potential new case calls from accident victims who are involved in traffic collisions related to police chases. In the usual case, the police are chasing a suspected criminal and that criminal drives recklessly and causes a traffic collision. The victim is left with substantial property damage and sometimes very serious injuries. The victims are alarmed to hear that the police department is immune from liability if the chase was within the department’s pursuit guidelines. The victims are left to fend for themselves or put the claim through their own insurance—if they have full and proper coverage.
In the most serious cases, lawyers may take on the pursuit guidelines or look for other loopholes which may nullify the immunity. California Vehicle Code section 17004.7 provides public agencies employing peace officers immunity from damages for collisions resulting from police chases if, but only if, the agency “adopts and promulgates a written policy on, and provides regular and periodic training on an annual basis for, vehicular pursuits. . . .” (§ 17004.7(b)(1).) Promulgation of the written policy must include “a requirement that all peace officers of the public agency certify in writing that they have received, read, and understand the policy.” (Id., (b)(2).)
Ramirez v. City of Gardena
In the recently published California Supreme Court case of Ramirez v. City of Gardena (8/13/18) an innocent victim was killed during a police pursuit after the police employed a “PIT” (Pursuit Intervention Technique) maneuver to end the pursuit. The plaintiff contended that the immunity did not apply because the police department could not supply written certifications that every officer in the department received, read and understood the pursuit policy.
In Ramirez, the City had a written policy on vehicle pursuits that was contained in a portion of the police manual. Further, the City provided training to its police officers on its pursuit policy on at least an annual basis. As part of that training, officers were required to certify electronically that they had received, read, and understood the pursuit policy. A training log produced by the City confirmed that 81 of the City’s 92 officers (including Officer involved in the deadly incident) had completed the annual training on the City’s pursuit policy within a year of the incident. The City also produced written certifications completed by 64 officers attesting that they had received, read, and understood the City’s pursuit policy. Apparently, the balance of the certifications was lost or misplaced.
The plaintiff sued for wrongful death and contended that the immunity did not apply because the City could not demonstrate compliance with section 17004.7. The Trial Court and Court of Appeal granted a summary judgment for the police on the immunity and the plaintiff petitioned for review to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court granted review limited to the following issue: Is the immunity provided by Vehicle Code section 17004.7 available to a public agency only if all peace officers of the agency certify in writing that they have received, read, and understand the agency’s vehicle pursuit policy?
The Immunity Statute
Subdivision (b) of section 17004.7 provides: “(1) A public agency employing peace officers that adopts and promulgates a written policy on, and provides regular and periodic training on an annual basis for, vehicular pursuits complying with subdivisions (c) and (d)[ is immune from liability for civil damages for personal injury to or death of any person or damage to property resulting from the collision of a vehicle being operated by an actual or suspected violator of the law who is being, has been, or believes he or she is being or has been, pursued in a motor vehicle by a peace officer employed by the public entity.
“(2) Promulgation of the written policy under paragraph (1) shall include, but is not limited to, a requirement that all peace officers of the public agency certify in writing that they have received, read, and understand the policy. The failure of an individual officer to sign a certification shall not be used to impose liability on an individual officer or a public entity.” (Emphasis added.)
The Court was concerned that a technical reading of the statute essentially acted as an unnecessary “loophole” for a police department that actually promulgated policies and instituted training and actually got substantial compliance. In agreeing with the Court of Appeal:
“Plaintiff’s interpretation would impose a heavy burden on public agencies, especially large ones. “[R]equiring 100 percent compliance as a condition of immunity could potentially result in the absurd circumstance that the failure of a single officer to complete a written certification in an agency employing thousands could undermine the agency’s ability to claim immunity, even though the agency conscientiously implemented its pursuit policy.” (Ramirez, supra, 14 Cal.App.5th at p. 823.) “Under that interpretation, an agency could do all within its power to implement its pursuit policy but still be liable if a single negligent or recalcitrant officer happens to be out of compliance with the agency’s certification requirement at the time an incident occurs.” (Id. at p. 824.)”
Further the Court reasoned: “Achieving immunity was the incentive for public entities to adopt the policy and provide the training. Plaintiff’s interpretation would make it very difficult for a public entity like the City to achieve immunity, and almost impossible for a large entity employing thousands of peace officers. Thus, that interpretation would greatly reduce the incentive for public entities, especially large ones, to promulgate the policy and provide the training, something we doubt the Legislature intended.”
For these reasons, the Court held that a public agency’s pursuit policy must contain the written certification requirement, but the agency does not have to prove total compliance with that requirement as a condition of obtaining immunity under section 17004.7. A requirement may exist even if not every peace officer complies with it.
If you have been injured as a result of a police pursuit that you think was conducted outside of an acceptable police pursuit policy, it is important to find an experienced plaintiff’s personal injury attorney that is knowledgeable about immunities and pursuit policies.