Police can be sued for damages when their car chases lead to the death or injury of third parties, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled Thursday, overturning its own landmark 1952 decision that had granted blanket immunity to police after a crash.
In the case at hand, the high court allowed the children of Luis Gonzalez to return to Fayette Circuit Court and sue Scott County Sheriff Tony Hampton and Deputy Sheriff Jeremy Johnson for damages related to his death.
Gonzalez, 62, died in 2014 when a suspected drug dealer being chased by Johnson crashed head-on into his vehicle on Georgetown Road in Lexington. “A litany of things went wrong with the pursuit,” the court said, including wet, slippery roads; a restless police dog poking his head into the front of the car where Johnson sat, steering; and a broken siren on Johnson’s car.
Gonzalez’s passenger, 38-year-old Geneva Spencer, died months after the crash from her injuries.
The Gonzalez family’s lawsuit was dismissed in circuit court because of the Supreme Court’s 1952 ruling, in a case titled Chambers v. Ideal Pure Milk Co., that police cannot be held liable for damages incurred during their pursuit of criminal suspects.
But the Supreme Court scrapped that precedent Thursday. In a 6-to-1 decision, the high court said Kentucky juries should get to decide if police were at fault, as they do in most other states.
“Because of (Chambers), our trial courts and juries were precluded from ever finding that police officers were the cause of any damage suffered by a third party who is hit by a fleeing suspect. Today, 67 years post-Chambers, Kentucky finds itself in a nearly non-existent minority of states that have such a per se no proximate cause rule,” Justice Debra Lambert of Somerset wrote for the majority.
The court noted that, from 1996 to 2015, an average of 355 people were killed annually in police pursuit-related crashes. During this period, the court wrote, roughly one-third of those killed were in a vehicle not involved in the pursuit or bystanders not in a vehicle.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Laurance VanMeter of Lexington said the Kentucky General Assembly had seven decades to enact a law addressing the court’s Chambers decision if legislators believed police should face liability for chase-related crashes. They did not pass such a law, he wrote.
“Without a significant change in the language of a statute, long-standing public policy shielding law enforcement from liability should not be changed by the courts,” VanMeter wrote.
The chase that killed Gonzalez started with an undercover drug operation the Scott County Sheriff’s Office was running with the Kentucky State Police near Lisle Road in southern Scott County in January 2014.
A man named Gregory was meant to buy heroin from a suspected dealer while Johnson, the deputy, checked the dealer’s license plates from a hiding place, so police might learn the dealer’s identity, according to the Supreme Court’s summary of the case. The dealer later was identified as 21-year-old Keenan McLaughlin of Lexington.
After the exchange, the Supreme Court wrote, “Johnson witnessed McLaughlin run a red light and, without authorization, began to pursue him.” The chase led the deputy and the suspect into Fayette County, where McLaughlin crashed into Gonzalez and Spencer. McLaughlin fled the crash scene on foot and was discovered by police soon thereafter at a house on East Second Street.
McLaughlin pleaded guilty in 2015 to two counts of manslaughter in exchange for 17 years in prison.
Meanwhile, in civil court, Gonzelez’ two grown sons filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Scott County sheriff and deputy.
The Gonzalez children pursued their claims despite the long-standing immunity held by police because that precedent “was based on the state of the law in Kentucky in 1952, which was a very, very long time ago. As my partner said during oral arguments, this was from the horse and buggy era,” said William Garmer, an attorney for the Gonzalez family.
Speaking for the Scott County Sheriff’s Office, attorney Barry Stilz said: “We’re disappointed in the ruling. We disagree with it” Stilz said he wanted to discuss Thursday’s decision with his clients before he publicly comments on their next legal steps.