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Police pursuits cause injuries and death in Virginia (VA) and Maryland (MD)

Posted on Jun 11, 2007
According to a report on MSNBC, a high speed chase by police in Prince George’s County, Maryland, of a fleeing motorcyclist led to four deaths and numerous injuries on May 31, 2007. This set of collisions occurred during rush hour on the beltway outside of Washington, D.C. The police were attempting to stop the motorcyclist and instead crashed into a car which went airborne and wrecked into other vehicles causing a chain reaction wreck. Two police officers and two innocent motorists were killed as part of these crashes. Also in recent days a Virginia (VA) State Police chase in Rockingham County, Virginia (VA) led to the a collision between a fleeing vehicle and another innocent motorist. The pursuit continued for about 5 miles, reaching speeds of up to 75 miles per hour. As reported in the Daily News Record by David Reynolds, in Harrisonburg, Virginia (VA) injuries including broken bones resulted from this chase. I was interviewed by the reporter for his article indicating on background the rights of individuals in this situation to make insurance claims for their bodily injury and wrongful death. As a personal injury lawyer out of Virginia Beach, Virginia (VA) who regularly handles cases throughout the state, I know of the relatively high number of crashes and fatalities caused by police pursuit situations. Obviously, anytime the fleeing driver strikes another motorist as occurred in Rockingham County, north of Harrisonburg, the at fault driver can be sued for causing a wreck and injury. It’s also possible that suits can be filed against the individual police officers or the police departments involved in these situations. Normally, a police officer who is in an emergency situation cannot be held liable for ordinary negligence but have to be grossly negligent in Virginia (VA) in order to be held responsible. However, gross negligence can be shown if the officer recklessly violated his department’s guidelines governing high speed chases. Each department may have slightly different guidelines about when a Virginia (VA) State Trooper or local police officer is allowed to pursue someone fleeing in a motor vehicle. Normally there are factors that have to be taken into account such as the proximity of bystanders, the road conditions, and the nature of the danger posed by the suspect. Obviously, it makes more sense to chase a fleeing murderer than someone who is only guilty of a minor equipment violation on their car. Additionally, if the officers are not involved in an emergency situation, but simply driving down the road in the normal course of their duties, they are held to the same rules of the road and can be held responsible for their negligence just like any other motorist. Even though the claim would be made against the individual officer, the insurance for the police department would be the company who would pay any settlement or verdict in that situation. Nationwide there is a debate about high speed pursuits. Between 2001 and 2005 approximately 350 people were killed during pursuit situations according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The decision for a police officer is often very difficult to make and depends upon a lot of factors that have to be taken into account quickly. However, the situation on the D.C. beltway on first glance appears to be a bad decision by the officer, especially looking with hindsight since police and innocent bystanders were killed.
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