Tort Law

Cops in high-speed chases owe duty to fleeing suspects, Utah Supreme Court rules

Ruling in the case of a teen who died in a high-speed chase, the Utah Supreme Court has held that police owe a statutory duty of care to fleeing suspects.

The state court had previously ruled that police owed a duty of care to innocent third parties during high-speed police chases. In a decision (PDF) issued on Tuesday, the justices said the duty extended to fleeing suspects as well. The Salt Lake Tribune, and the Associated Press have stories.

The decision allows the family of Wayne Torrie to pursue a lawsuit against the sheriff’s deputy who was pursuing the teen on March 23, 2010, after the youth took the family car without permission. Wayne Torrie’s vehicle reached speeds as high as 99 miles an hour before it left the road and rolled over several times, killing the youth.

Wayne Torrie was upset that day because he had been teased at school, according to the opinion. His mother asked police to bring her son into custody, but she warned dispatchers that he had sent text messages threatening to commit suicide by crashing the vehicle if police tried to apprehend him.

The court based its decision on a Utah statute that provides exemptions to traffic laws for emergency vehicles. The law says those privileges do not exempt the drivers from “the duty to act as a reasonably prudent emergency vehicle operator in like circumstances.”

“While we recognize that other jurisdictions have looked to the plain language of similar statutes and interpreted that the duty does not extend to fleeing suspects, we decline to depart from our established plain language analysis.”

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