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Trooper Faces Charges Following Christmas 2020 High-Speed Police Chase Wreck

Pianko Law
Pianko Law Group 
October 29, 2021

An Ulster County judge refused to grant bail for a state trooper who allegedly rammed his patrol car into the back of a fleeing suspect vehicle. The force of the impact ejected an 11-year-old girl from the vehicle, killing her almost instantly.

Initially, the trooper pulled a vehicle over for speeding on the New York Thruway. After speaking with the driver, the trooper allegedly sprayed the man with pepper spray, prompting him to drive away. The trooper pursued the vehicle at a high speed, eventually ramming it, causing it to overturn, and killing the young girl.

Authorities charged the trooper with reckless endangerment, manslaughter, and murder. A judge denied bail for the trooper, who had been involved in two previous high-speed collisions which took place under similar circumstances. “We cannot allow someone that has a history to be on any police force throughout this state,” family advocate Rev. Kevin McCall said.

In a statement, the New York State Troopers Benevolent Association expressed condolences to the family and said it would defend the trooper in court. “As this case makes its way through the legal system, we look forward to a review and public release of the facts, including the motorist’s reckless actions that started this chain of events.”

Official Immunity and First Responders

This rule may be one of the most controversial legal doctrines in American law. It’s based on the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which was common in the Middle Ages. Most people believed that God appointed the king or queen. Since God could not make a mistake, or so most people believed, the monarch could not make a mistake either. Since a lawsuit against the sovereign was bound to fail, the matter would waste the court’s time, and so the law barred such actions.

The environment has changed radically over the years. For example, absolute monarchs are a relic of the past. Nations which have kings, queens, sheiks, or other such rulers also have parliaments or other bodies which share power.

Nonetheless, the basic idea persists in American law. However, New York has expressly waived its sovereign immunity (official immunity) if the government official was negligent. This government official could be anyone from Governor Kathy Hochul to the person who empties trash on the weekends at the state capitol.

Negligence is basically a lack of care. When it comes to vehicle cooperation, the standard of care is different for police officers pursuing suspects than for other drivers. Police officers need not obey the speed limit or stop at red lights in these situations. However, their official immunity is not unlimited. Subject to some additional procedural matters, which are discussed below, a New York personal injury attorney can file a negligence claim, based on a number of factors, such as:

  • Time of day or night,
  • Suspect’s alleged offense,
  • Environmental conditions at the time,
  • Presence of possible victims (e.g. other motorists or pedestrians),
  • Policy violations, and
  • Need for a pursuit.

Nature of the offense and need for pursuit are usually the two biggest factors in police chase claims. In the above story, the suspect’s alleged offense was speeding. That’s certainly not a violent offense. Also in the above story, the need for a pursuit was questionable at best. The officer had already verified the vehicle’s owner as well as its driver. It would have been quite easy for officers to track down this suspect at a later date.

Additionally, a number of James Bond-like gadgets, which could eliminate the need for chases, are currently available. Shootable GPS trackers are a good example.

Frequently, officers justify dangerous chases by saying they cannot pick and choose when and where to enforce the laws. That might be true. But in this specific context, the burden is on officers. Most suspects say they would stop running if officers stopped chasing them.

Speed and Vehicle Collisions

Excessive velocity is not just a component of reckless police chase wrecks. Speed is a factor in about a third of the fatal vehicle collisions in New York. Velocity increases the risk of a collision and the force in a crash.

Speed multiplies stopping distance. To stop vehicles, drivers must first see hazards ahead. Then, they must move their feet onto the brake pedals. Finally, they must slow and stop the car. At 30mph, most vehicles move about three car lengths forward during this process. At 60mph, stopping distance multiplies to eighteen car lengths. In other words, speed decreases reaction time.

Speed also multiplies the force in a collision between two objects, per Newton’s Second Law of Motion. There is an old story that a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building gathers so much speed that the impact could kill a pedestrian on the street. That tale is somewhat true. 

In terms of liability for damages, speed could involve the negligence per se rule or the ordinary negligence principle. These damages normally include compensation for economic losses, such as medical bills, and noneconomic losses, such as pain and suffering.

Negligence per se is basically the violation of a safety law. Tortfeasors (negligent drivers) who violate such laws and cause wrecks could be liable for damages as a matter of law. So, if the tortfeasor was travelling above the speed limit and speed contributed to the wreck, which it usually does as outlined above, maximum compensation might automatically be available.

As mentioned, ordinary negligence is basically a lack of care. The posted speed limit is a presumptively reasonable speed under ideal conditions. The duty of care requires drivers to slow down if conditions are poor. If they fail to do so, and speed contributed to the wreck, the tortfeasor could be liable for damages.

Procedural Issues

Back to high-speed police wrecks. Officers are legally and morally responsible for the damages they negligently cause. Their employers are often financially responsible, because of the respondeat superior rule. Employers are liable for damages if:

  • Employee: If the employer controls the driver in a meaningful way, such as route travelled, the driver is normally an employee for negligence purposes.
  • Scope of Employment: Any act which benefits the employer in any way, such as driving an empty vehicle to a garage, is within the scope of employment.

The respondeat superior doctrine applies in most commercial operator wrecks, such as truck crashes, bus crashes, and Uber crashes.

If the employer was a police department, the MTA, or another public entity, a victim must first file a notice of claim. This notice, which is part of the official immunity idea discussed above, gives the government a chance to settle the claim quietly and privately.

Officer-involved wrecks are usually very complex legal matters. For a free consultation with an experienced personal injury attorney in New York, contact the Pianko Law Group, PLLC. Attorneys can connect victims with doctors, even if they have no insurance or money.

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