Law enforcement officers understand that sometimes the pursuit of justice can lead to unintended and even disastrous consequences. Human error is a risk in any job, but in a law enforcement context, human error can prove deadly. In addition, many practices that law enforcement offices are required to engage in are inherently dangerous. Law enforcement officers must often conduct traffic stops and pursue suspects while driving a high-tech vehicle. When pursuit of another vehicle requires law enforcement officers to drive at high speeds, the risk of accidents increases and unfortunately, tragedy sometimes occurs.
High-Speed Police Chase Related Deaths
The state of North Carolina has recently experienced a spike in high-speed police chase related deaths. The fatalities have ranged from suspects to their passengers to innocent bystanders. The circumstances surrounding each fatality are unique, yet bonded by the fact that a high-speed police chase was involved in each situation. Some examples of fatalities that occurred in North Carolina within the past four months include:
· Latia Winchester, who was killed after her car was broadsided by a vehicle being chased by highway patrol enforcement for speeding away from a routine highway patrol checkpoint
· David Wayne Cox, who was killed when a County Sherriff’s patrol car struck the driver’s side of his car. Though Mr. Cox was driving while intoxicated, law enforcement had been pursuing a speeding motorcyclist, not Mr. Cox himself
· Robert Dewayne Davies (driver) and his brother Ernest Shawn Davies (passenger), who were killed when their truck crashed into a tree while they were being pursued by law enforcement for driving 82mph in a 35 mph zone
Michelle Taylor, who was killed when her truck crashed into trees while she was being pursued for failing to stop, after law enforcement had signaled that she needed to pull over
Family and friends of many recent victims, including those close to Latia Winchester, have questioned the use of high-speed police chases in non-necessary scenarios. They argue that given the high risks associated with high-speed chases, chases should be reserved for situations in which they are absolutely necessary. Arguably, a driver speeding away from a checkpoint who has not given law enforcement reasonable suspicion of engaging in other illegal activity is not a situation requiring that officers pursue the driver by way of a high-speed chase.
Adding to the risks of already dangerous high-speed chases, is the technology that law enforcement vehicles are outfitted with. Last month, the New York Times reported on the dangers posed by emergency vehicles such as ambulances and police cars, which the Timescalled “the most wired vehicles on the road.” As lawmakers, the media and the general public become increasingly aware of how dangerous texting and speaking on a cell phone can be while one is driving, it should be abundantly clear that law enforcement vehicles, which contain various computers, radios, etc., are that much more dangerous than passenger vehicles. The Timesnoted that “gadgets are widely seen as distractions to be avoided behind the wheel, (but) there are hundreds of thousands of drivers – police officers and paramedics – who are required to use them, sometimes at high speeds, while weaving through traffic, sirens blaring.
The Times also noted that law enforcement officers are specifically at risk for dangerous driving practices, given the necessity that they check information while pursuing other vehicles: “For police officers, there are reasons to constantly be checking a dashboard computer. They might check a license plate of a car they are tailing by using a keyboard to call up a screen, typing in the plate number, then reading more about the owner.” The high-tech nature of law enforcement vehicles almost certainly has contributed to the recent spike of high-speed chase fatalities that have rocked North Carolina and other parts of the nation.
What Can Victims Do?
The families of victims who have perished as a result of high-speed police car chases may file a wrongful death claim in order to recover for their loss. In North Carolina, the family of the deceased may sue the responsible party, either law enforcement or the vehicle being pursued, depending on the circumstances. If the court finds that the party responsible for the victim’s death caused the death by a “wrongful act, neglect or default,” the victim’s family may be able to recover damages including funeral expenses, pain and suffering of the deceased, medical care of the deceased and punitive damages. If the deceased was pregnant at the time, the family of the deceased may additionally be able to sue for the death of the pregnant victim’s unborn fetus.
For Further Reference
Trying to navigate the legal system while mourning the loss of a loved one can be a stressful and frustrating process. If someone you care about has died as a result of a high-speed car chase, please contact an experienced personal injury attorney.