Bystanders injured as a result of high-speed police chases have another Pennsylvania decision to cite in favor of setting aside governmental immunity in tort claims against police departments following a recent Commonwealth Court decision — even if it isn't the police car that hits them.
A unanimous three-judge panel has ruled that the estate of a Pennsylvania man who died from injuries sustained as a result of a Harrisburg police chase could advance his claim that a Harrisburg police officer negligently operated his cruiser in pursuit of the suspect who ultimately collided with him. The estate of Akeem L. Cornelius may also develop claims that the Harrisburg Police Bureau was negligent in failing to train and supervise the officer involved, the court ruled, affirming a Dauphin County judge who overruled the police defendants' preliminary objections. That order was amended to allow for an interlocutory appeal, according to the Commonwealth Court's opinion.
Cornelius was a passenger in a vehicle driven by James Peck that did not come into direct contact with a police vehicle. According to the court's opinion, police were in pursuit of co-defendant Isaac Roberts, who collided with the passenger side of Peck's vehicle.
The ruling, written by Senior Judge James Gardner Colins in Cornelius v. Roberts, upholds a prior panel's decision in Aiken v. Borough of Blawnox, which the police defendants argued had been wrongly decided. The court in Aiken relied on the state Supreme Court's decision in Jones v. Chieffo, in which the high court addressed whether innocent bystanders may recover under the Tort Claims Act for injuries alleged to have been sustained as a result of the negligent operation of an agency vehicle during a police chase.
The Jones court held that the negligent or criminal acts of the fleeing suspects do not constitute a "superseding cause" that would prevent a trier of fact from finding that police negligence was a substantial factor in causing harm to an innocent bystander, Colins observed.
The Aiken panel followed with a ruling that local agencies and their employees owe a common-law duty to innocent bystanders in operating police cars while pursuing suspects at high rates of speed, Colins said.
Section 8541 of the Tort Claims Act immunizes local government agencies and their employees unless a claimant proves one of eight enumerated exceptions.
But before a claimant even gets to the eight exceptions, Colins noted, he or she must clear two initial hurdles. First, the plaintiff must prove that damages would be recoverable under common or statutory law if the defendant did not otherwise have immunity. Secondly, the plaintiff must prove his or her injury was caused by a negligent act of the local agency or its employee acting within the scope of the employee's office or duties.
The first exception is vehicle liability related to the "operation" of a motor vehicle. State agencies may be held liable under this provision for injuries sustained in police pursuits unless the plaintiff was fleeing from police (or aiding a person fleeing police), the law states.
"The purpose of this language is to weed out wrongdoers from innocent bystanders injured in police pursuits and assure that wrongdoers do not get the benefit of the commonwealth's tort protection for action that may have endangered police officers and the public," Colins said.
"As in Aiken, we believe the specific delineation of these two categories within the vehicle exception suggests that the General Assembly did not intend to remove all parties injured by the negligent operation of a police vehicle during a police pursuit from the class of individuals able to recover under the Tort Claims Act, but rather for innocent bystanders to remain eligible to recover from a local agency and its employees, if injured during a police pursuit due to the negligent operation of a vehicle in the possession or control of the local agency," Colins said.
The analysis was supported by the state Supreme Court's decision in Lindstrom v. City of Corry, which dealt with whether state agencies owed a common-law duty to fleeing suspects. (The case came down before the General Assembly's exceptions.)
In Lindstrom, the justices distinguished the common-law duty they had carved out in Jones (related to innocent bystanders) from fleeing suspects.
Accordingly, all signs pointed to the Cornelius panel's agreement with the plaintiff that it could not be determined that the cops were not in part negligent for the injuries sustained — at least not at this stage in the proceedings.
While the court acknowledged the exception should be strictly construed in light of the General Assembly's goal of providing immunity to governmental agencies, it said the case law examining the "operation" of a motor vehicle tipped the scales in favor of the plaintiff.
Namely, the Supreme Court in Regester v. County of Chester held that, while the vehicle liability exception encompasses more than just negligent driving, there was nothing setting forth a broad rule that every decision made while operating a vehicle triggered the exception. That case dealt with an ambulance driver who failed to follow directions and maintain a good enough familiarity with the region, which allegedly closed the window in which paramedics could revive a decedent.
The court declined to hold that the circumstances fell into the vehicle exception.
In the instant case, the officer and police department argued the chase was like the Regester case — that they negligently carried out a public service, not that they negligently operated a vehicle.
But Colins, joined by Judges Bernard L. McGinley and Robert Simpson, concluded the case turned on Aiken.
Charles E. Schmidt Jr. of SchmidtKramer is representing the estate.
Schmidt said the court got it right and that the decision "reinforces existing law." However, he said the law was clear enough that he thought the case should never have been certified for an appeal.
John Flounlacker of Thomas, Thomas & Hafer in Harrisburg represented the police bureau and Officer Edward Grynkewicz III and did not return a call requesting comment.
(Copies of the 15-page opinion in Cornelius v. Roberts, PICS No. 13-1265, are available from Pennsylvania Law Weekly. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •