Tennessee City Not Liable for Car Accident Caused by Stolen Police Car
If someone is seriously injured or killed in a car accident, there may be several liable parties. In addition to the negligent driver, the victim may have cause to bring a personal injury or wrongful death lawsuit against the owner of the vehicle or those responsible for placing the driver in a position to injure others. But there are situations where the law may limit a victim’s ability to recover against an otherwise responsible party.
Public Duty Doctrine Does Not Protect Accident Victims
For example, when the negligent defendant is a municipality or government agency, liability may be restricted by the principle of sovereign immunity. This means you cannot sue the government without its consent. In Tennessee, the legislature has adopted the Governmental Tort Liability Act, which among other things waives immunity for all agencies and subdivisions arising from the “negligent operation of motor vehicles by employees.” In other words, if you get into an accident with a city-owned vehicle, you can file a personal injury lawsuit against the city.
A recent Tennessee Court of Appeals decision addressed the limits of this waiver of immunity. This case involves a police car owned by the City of Fayetteville, Tennessee, which collided with another vehicle containing a family of five. One family member died as a result of the accident, while three others suffered severe injuries.
What makes this case unusual was the police car was stolen. A police officer arrested a woman and placed her in his police car. The suspect then stole the vehicle and was driving at the time of the fatal accident. The victims sued both the suspect-driver and the city. With respect to the city, the victims argued the police officer’s negligence in failing “to follow the correct and proper procedures” led to the accident. The city moved to dismiss the lawsuit on sovereign immunity grounds.
The Court of Appeals agreed the city was entitled to dismissal. The legislature’s waiver of sovereign immunity for car accidents did not apply in this case, the court held, because the only negligence alleged by the victims here related to the officer’s restraint of the suspect, not his operation of a motor vehicle. The law requires evidence of “negligent operation” of the vehicle itself by an employee.
The court further rejected the victims’ alternate claim that sovereign immunity was waived because the officer’s actions constituted “a negligent act or omission of any employee within the scope of his employment.” This would include the officer’s failure to properly restrain his suspect, according to the victims. But as the court saw it, the city had a “valid defense” under what is known as the “Public Duty Doctrine,” which holds the government is not liable for any negligent act arising from an “employee‟s breach of a duty owed to the public at large.” Put simply, the officer had a public duty to arrest and detain the suspect. He did not owe a special duty to the victims to protect them from the suspect. Accordingly, the city was immune from lawsuit.
Get Help from a Tennessee Personal Injury Attorney
In the aftermath of a car accident, there are multiple legal issues that may need to be sorted out. An experienced Knoxville personal injury lawyer can help you with these issues. Contact the offices of Fox Farley Willis & Burnette, Attorneys at Law, if you need to speak with an attorney right away.