Utah Supreme Court: police have duty of care to those they pursue in chases

by Walter Olson on August 22, 2013

“In a decision issued [earlier this month], the Supreme Court ruled that police have a ‘duty of care,’ or a responsibility, to the people they chase down. The decision ruled in favor of the family of Wayne Torrie, 16, who died in 2010 when he crashed in Weber County after a high speed police chase. Torrie’s family sued the officer that chased him, as well as the Weber County Sheriff’s Office.” [Salt Lake Tribune]

{ 4 comments }

1 VMS 08.22.13 at 8:58 am

The actual decision is here: http://www.utcourts.gov/opinions/supopin/Torrie1348080613.pdf It is worth the read, and fills in information that the news article omits.

The Utah Supreme Court found a statutory duty towards a fleeing suspect, but declined to rule as to whether there was a common law duty. They seem to hang their hat on the fact that the statute does not carve out an exception for fleeing suspects. They say that unlike the courts of other states that considered the issue, they will not look further than the plain meaning of the statute where the statute is clear and unambiguous.

These judges should go back to law school and learn that equitable considerations trump a statute when following the plain meaning ends in an absurd result.

http://www.courts.state.ny.us/reporter/archives/riggs_palmer.htm

Riggs v Palmer is a famous case, not just in New York. It made its way into most of the law schools of this nation to teach that equity and common sense trump the plain meaning of a statute in proper cases. In Riggs, Palmer murdered his grandfather who left him a sizable portion of his estate in his will. Palmer then claimed that the statute of wills made him the beneficiary and there were no exceptions to the statute’s plain language. Riggs and her sister, the daughters of the decedent, who would have inherited if the testamentary gift to Palmer were declared void, were the plaintiffs in this case.

Two points on Riggs v Palmer:

1) The application of its principles has to be used sparingly and only in cases where you have a truly absurd result by applying the statute as written. Otherwise, the courts enter the slippery slope of legislating from the bench. I think that the Utah case is a situation in equity calling for the application of Riggs v Palmer.

2) Legislation to codify Riggs v Palmer has really screwed up New York Law and has multiplied litigation involving situations where the beneficiary of a will or the surviving joint holder of a bank account has caused the death of the testator. The legislature specifically disqualified a joint bank account holder convicted of first or second degree murder of the other joint bank account holder from taking monies by operation of law that he did not contribute to the joint account. Now that the legislature has spoken, can someone who is charged with 2nd degree murder, but who cops a plea to manslaughter get the money? Poorly written and poorly thought out laws are part of the overlawyering problem. In fact, any legislation, court decision or procedural laxness that detracts from a speedy certain outcome leads to the overlawyering problem.

2 marco73 08.22.13 at 9:01 am

Well that clears that up.
The Supreme Court has declared multiple times that when you call for the police, the police have no duty to protect you.
But if the police decide to chase you, then the police have a duty to protect you, at least in Utah.

3 Mike 08.22.13 at 9:48 am

To point out the obvious, there will be no more police chases in Utah until the legislature acts to fix this.

4 prior probability 08.22.13 at 6:41 pm

Following up on Prof. Thierer’s recent tweet, chalk this decision up in the “ignore costs” category.

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