Pursuit Liability Decided

Cities held responsible

Channel 6 News Omaha

May 5, 2006—
The Nebraska Supreme Court said Friday that cities can be held responsible for injuries to people hurt by a suspect fleeing a high-speed police chase, even after the pursuit has ended.

The high court ruled in a case in which the city of Omaha was ordered to pay $1.5 million to two men seriously injured after a police chase in 2000.

Douglas County District Judge Peter Bataillon rejected the city's argument that it should not have been held liable for the men's injuries because the officer had already backed off the chase when the crash happened.

Nebraska cities are liable under state law for injuries to innocent people in crashes that stem from police chases.

Bataillon originally set the amount of damages for one of the men at $2.9 million, but ruled that state law caps liability for cities at $1 million.

The city was ordered to pay $1 million to Jimmie Joe Staley and $500,000 to Joshua McGrath for injuries they suffered when their truck burst into flames after being hit by a car fleeing police.

Staley sustained lung damage and severe burns on two-thirds of his body. McGrath suffered a broken pelvis, a broken facial bone, and burns on one-third of his body.

The city had argued that it should not have been held responsible because the police officer had called off the pursuit a half-mile before the crash.

Bataillon rejected that argument. The driver of the fleeing car, Michael Barnes, testified that he couldn't tell whether the cruiser was still behind him because he was going down hill. The crash happened 20 to 30 seconds after the officer called off the chase.

"He testified that he still felt as though the police cruiser was right behind him and that he was still being pursued," said McGrath's lawyer, Terry Sibbernsen, in briefs submitted to the high court.

The chase began on April 14, 2000, when Sgt. Preston Sears saw Barnes skid into an intersection on a red light, back up and then drive through the intersection on a green light.

When Sears tried to pull over Barnes' car, Barnes sped off, beginning a chase that lasted several blocks.

In 2002, the high court ruled that a State Patrol chase of a schizophrenic suspect was at least partly responsible for a three-vehicle crash that killed a woman and injured three others.

The accident happened Aug. 5, 1995, in West Point, and 61-year-old Ramona Meyer was killed. Muriel Bacus of Elkhorn and her two young sons, Richard and Kyle, were seriously injured.

Patrol Sgt. Gerald Sieck chased Donald Poston of Springfield for 26 miles on U.S. Highway 275 at speeds up to 120 mph after clocking Poston's van at 94 mph west of Wisner.

Poston later said he saw the red lights and heard the siren behind him, but was convinced that if he stopped he would be killed and a "voice" told him to "go, go, go" and that he would be protected.

Sieck testified that it appeared no matter what he did, including ending the pursuit, Poston would continue to flee.

Poston drove into West Point. When his car struck a van driven by Meyer, it went airborne and crashed into Bacus' station wagon.

Poston was not injured, and, by reason of insanity, he was found innocent of motor vehicle homicide and four counts of second-degree assault.

The high court ruled that Poston clearly was trying to evade police during the chase, and the patrol was at least partly responsible for the crash.

In Friday's ruling, Judge Kenneth Stephan said that while Poston's case was different, "this fact does not automatically insulate the city from strict liability for injuries to an innocent third party."

"A law enforcement officer's decision and action to terminate a vehicular pursuit do not instantaneously eliminate the danger to innocent third parties," he said. "That danger continues until the motorist reasonably perceives that the pursuit has ended and has an opportunity to discontinue the hazardous, evasive driving behaviors contemplated in the statute.

"Thus, whether an injury to an innocent third party is `proximately caused by the action of a law enforcement officer ... during vehicular pursuit' is a question of fact which must necessarily be determined on a case-by-case basis."