The Kentucky Supreme Court has found that Kentuckians have a right to sue police for damages caused while officers chase suspects. The case involved a 2014 chase in which a suspect’s car killed two people.

The sons of one of the victims filed a wrongful death lawsuit even though a 1952 precedent was against them. In a 6-to-1 decision, the court overturned its earlier view that police are immune to such lawsuits. Both the precedent and their father were 62 years old at the time of the accident.

Chase during drug sting kills two innocent bystanders

In 2014, the Scott County Sheriff’s Office was doing an undercover sting at a Lexington home they thought was involved in heroin deals. Police arrested one suspect, while another fled the scene. A deputy gave chase.

According to the Kentucky Supreme Court, “A litany of things went wrong with the pursuit,” including wet roads and a broken police car siren. The suspect’s car hit an unrelated car head-on, killing its 62-year-old driver and a 38-year-old passenger.

Old decision meets new case

In throwing out the sons’ wrongful death suit, Kentucky lower courts pointed to the 1952 ruling. It blocked any lawsuits against police for damages caused by police pursuits, explaining “police cannot be made insurers of the conduct of the culprits they chase.”

The 2019 ruling states, “We instead hold that an officer can be the cause-in-fact and legal cause of damages inflicted upon a third party as a result of a negligent pursuit.”

The sons can now seek damages from the county sheriff and deputy sheriff named in their suit, although the Kentucky high court adds, “we, of course, do not criticize the actions of the men and women of law enforcement lightly.”

Where we go from here

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, police pursuits kill about one person a day in the United States, including the one in three who are innocent bystanders.

With this year’s ruling, as the high court wrote, Kentucky joins most states, which do not rule out police chases as a cause for damages that can be brought to court.