November 2, 2018
In Sauers v. Borough of Nesquehoning, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit opened the door for Pennsylvania citizens to sue police officers who cause injuries during dangerous, high speed chases. Generally, police officers cannot be sued unless they have notice that they can be liable for their specific actions, due to a doctrine known as qualified immunity. Sauers effectively put police officers around the Commonwealth on notice that going forward they can be held liable for dangerous police chases.
In this case a police officer observed a motorist commit a summary traffic violation. The police officer, traveling in the opposite direction, turned around and began to pursue the motorist. The officer radioed to a neighboring township to stop the vehicle once it entered their jurisdiction. But for some reason, the officer decided to continue his pursuit of the motorist and traveled at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. During this pursuit, the officer lost control of his vehicle and slammed into the plaintiff’s car, seriously injuring the plaintiff and killing the plaintiff’s wife.
The plaintiff brought suit alleging that his Fourteenth Amendment right to Due Process had been violated based on a state-created danger – namely the officer’s conduct. In response, the officer asserted qualified immunity. The court first explained that the plaintiff sufficiently stated a state-created danger claim, because the officer’s conduct was “conscience-shocking under [the court’s] state-created danger framework.” Next, the court analyzed whether the officer had fair warning that he could be liable for his “actions taken in conscious disregard of a great risk of harm during the course of a police pursuit.” If the officer did not have notice, then qualified immunity would shield him from liability. The court explained that at the time of the accident in 2014, it was not clearly established that a police officer could face constitutional liability for engaging in a high-speed pursuit of a motorist who committed a summary traffic offense. Thus, the officer enjoyed qualified immunity for his actions.
Although this case is unfortunate for this individual plaintiff, it benefits the Commonwealth as a whole. Police officers across Pennsylvania are now on notice that engaging in this type of conduct opens them up to liability. From this point forward, any officer who unnecessarily engages in a high-speed pursuit, in conscious disregard of a great risk of harm during the course of the pursuit, can be held liable for any injuries they cause to innocent parties.