FRANKFORT, Ky. (Legal Newsline) – The Supreme Court of Kentucky ruled earlier this year that police can be sued in the commonwealth for damages if car chases lead to the injury or death of third parties. The decision overturned a previous Supreme Court decision dating to 1952.
The decision was rendered in June, but a final version of the opinion was released Sept. 26.
The estate for Luis J. Gonzalez II filed a wrongful death suit against Scott County Deputy Sheriff Jeremy Johnson and Scott County Sheriff Tony Hampton, both in their individual and official capacities. Gonzalez died when a criminal suspect crashed into his vehicle during a high-speed chase that Johnson started in 2014. Johnson’s car wasn’t involved in the accident.
The officers were granted summary judgment in the Fayette Circuit Court based on Chambers v. Ideal Pure Milk Co., and the Supreme Court overruled.
"We now overrule Chambers insofar as it holds an officer cannot be the proximate or legal cause of damage inflicted on a third-party by a fleeing suspect,” the ruling states. "We adopt the majority rule that will allow juries to determine whether a pursuing officer’s actions were a substantial factor in causing injury to a third party and apportion fault accordingly.”
The panel of judges added that so many changes have occurred in Kentucky law considering decades have passed since Chambers was green-lighted.
“Applying this new standard, we hold that the factual allegations in this case were sufficient to create a disputed issue of material fact as to whether Deputy Johnson negligently conduced his pursuit of [the suspect],” the ruling states. "A jury will be able to assess the facts and circumstances and duties, including statutory duties, of each of the parties and properly apportion fault, if fault is found."
Chief Justice John D. Minton and justices David Buckingham, Lisabeth Tabor Hughes, Michelle M. Keller, Debra H. Lambert, Laurance B.VanMeter and Samuel T. Wright sat in on the ruling and concurred.
VanMeter dissented with the ruling.
"I respectfully dissent from the majority's opinion overturning 67 years of precedent based on changes in the way this court views causation and a national trend to move away from the per se no proximate cause rule regarding police pursuits," VanMeter wrote. "...I disagree and would leave this public policy decision to the legislature."