Police officers must act quickly when they respond to a call. Depending on the circumstances, an officer may be the only one on duty or the officer is needed to assist other officers with an ongoing emergency. But let’s say that an officer is responding to a call. While on the way to the call, the officer hits a pedestrian or collides with another vehicle, causing serious injury to the pedestrian or the occupants of the other vehicle. Is the officer liable for those injuries?
In Mississippi, cases against law enforcement officers are typically brought under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act, which “provides the exclusive civil remedy against a governmental entity of its employee for acts or omissions which give rise to a suit.” Under the MTCA, there are certain exemptions from liability, one of which is “police-protection immunity.” Under the police-protection exemption, a governmental entity or its employee acting within the course and scope of their employment or duties is not liable for a claim “Arising out of any act or omission of an employee of a governmental entity engaged in the performance or execution of duties or activities relating to police or fire protection unless the employee acted in reckless disregard of the safety and well-being of any person not engaged in criminal activity at the time of injury[.]” Breaking it down, if an officer is acting in their capacity as a member of law enforcement, they will NOT be liable unless they show reckless disregard for the safety of others.
What is reckless disregard? The Mississippi Supreme Court has explained that it is “less than an intentional act, [but] it is more than mere negligence.” “[R]eckless disregard embraces willful or wanton conduct which requires knowingly and intentionally doing a thing or wrongful act.” Wantonness is “a failure or refusal to exercise any care, while negligence is a failure to exercise due care.” Trial courts typically find that there is reckless disregard when the “conduct involved evinced not only some appreciation of the unreasonable risk involved, but also a deliberate disregard of that risk and the high probability of harm involved.” “While the conduct does not have to be intentional, ‘reckless disregard usually is accompanied by a conscious indifference to consequences, amounting almost to a willingness that harm should follow.’” The best way to think about reckless disregard is whether, under a totality of the circumstances, an officer knows that there is a substantial risk of others being harmed by his conduct and carries out the conduct anyway.
Here is an example: Suppose an officer is responding to a call. He activates his siren, turns on his lights, and drives to the call. While on the way, he is weaving in and out of different traffic lanes, running red lights, and driving well over the speed limit. As he’s approaching another red light, the officer does not notice a young woman crossing the street, and he hits her. Is the officer liable? Likely so because the officer was not exercising any care for the safety of those around him. The officer likely could have avoided liability had he slowed down as he was approaching each red light, obeyed the general traffic laws, and taken every precaution while responding to the call.
The thing to remember is that even though law enforcement is entitled to certain protection from lawsuits, that does not mean that they can disregard everyone’s safety when responding to an emergency. They still must follow the rules of the road and exercise caution. Like most cases, though, whether an officer is liable will always depend on the specific circumstances of the situation.