Suit Filed in Fatal Police Chase

In the pretend world of Hollywood, chase scenes are fun for the audience. But in the real world, police chases are often deadly for the suspect, the police officers, and even innocent motorists.

That is what happened in March 2011. A police officer employed by the City of Cincinnati decided to pull over Mark Gerth for a traffic stop. It turned out that Gerth was in a stolen car, so he began to flee. Several officers then determined to give chase. The suspect drove through downtown, ran a red light, and smashed into a taxicab driven by Mohamed Sidi. At the time, Sidi was taking a passenger named Tonya Hairston to the train station. The crash was so violent it killed both Sidi and Hairston.

Recently, the widow of Sidi, who had become a United States citizen less than six months earlier, brought suit in Ohio. Unless the laws of that state are substantially different from those in Texas, she will have little chance to obtain justice.

In Texas, the officers would have complete immunity from suit, as well as the municipality that employs them, if they are acting within the scope of their authority in “good faith.” “Good faith” exists if a reasonably prudent official, under the same or similar circumstances, could have believed that his conduct was justified based on the information he possessed when the conduct occurred. The “could have believed” component is easy for the officer to prove, and correspondingly difficult for a claimant to overcome. In the case of a high-speed chase, the court conducts a “need/risk” analysis of the officer’s conduct. If the police officer simply considers multiple courses of action and selects one that a reasonable official could believe to be justified by the information possessed at the time, “good faith” is satisfied as a matter of law. That means that he and the municipality will be completely immune from suit, and the family members of the victims cannot obtain compensation for their damages.

Prevention of a loss is always better than providing a remedy for it. However, due to the state of the law in Texas, cities have no financial incentive to create policies restricting high-speed emergency responses. In the case of a fire alarm, studies have proven that a significant percentage of them do not present a real emergency, and more importantly, that the actual amount of time saved when emergency responders run red lights is very small. Yet, the risk of collision is great. With police chases, very often a coordinated effort of law enforcement can apprehend the suspect without a chase at all. In fact, some governments do not authorize them. Therefore, the better solution for citizens of Houston is a political one: a safe and sensible policy can best be achieved by setting municipal standards, since litigation in Texas does not provide a meaningful inducement for revising dangerous practices. Until that occurs, however, families damaged by high-speed chases must bravely seek justice in court.

If you or someone you know has been killed or injured in an accident involving municipal vehicles and/or employees, contact the attorneys at Abraham, Watkins, Nichols, Agosto, Aziz & Stogner by calling (713) 222-7211 or 713-222-7211.