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Eastern District continues high bar for police liability in fatal chases

Scott Lauck//October 20, 2022//

Eastern District continues high bar for police liability in fatal chases

Scott Lauck//October 20, 2022//

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The Missouri Court of Appeals Eastern District has reaffirmed a long line of cases making it difficult for plaintiffs to hold police responsible for injuries to innocent victims of a high-speed pursuit.

The court on Oct. 11 ruled that St. Louis police officers were not the proximate cause of a fleeing suspect’s collision with another car, which killed Reniece Randle and seriously injured Jacqueline Armstrong in July 2019.

According to the opinion, the suspect, Danny Harris, ran several stop signs, went the wrong way on one-way streets, drove through a large park and evaded a tire deflation device before police disengaged from the chase.

After the police halted, Harris collided with Armstrong’s vehicle while turned around to see where they were. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Armstrong and Randle’s son, Jemerio Harris, filed a lawsuit in 2020 in St. Louis Circuit Court alleging that the police chase had caused the fatal collision. The Eastern District affirmed an earlier grant of summary judgment for the city.

Judge Sherri B. Sullivan wrote for the court that the officers were 15-20 seconds behind the suspect and didn’t see the crash occur. The only conclusion supported by the facts, she wrote, is that the closest officer “was nowhere near the site of the collision, and that it was Suspect’s reckless driving at dangerous speeds and unlawful disregard of traffic signals that caused the collision at issue.”

The officers’ distance from the crash made the causality “even more speculative” than those in a line of similar cases, the judge wrote. A 1999 Missouri Supreme Court opinion, Stanley v. City of Independence, held that there was “nothing other than speculation” to conclude that officer conduct had caused the fatal collision in that case.

The Western District has issued three similar opinions. A 2014 Eastern District case had allowed a suit involving a police chase to proceed. But Sullivan said the pursuit in that case, Moyer v. St. Francois County Sheriff Department, involved “extreme facts,” including a 10-mile chase and speeds of 120 miles per hour. Judges Angela T. Quigless and Robert M. Clayton III concurred.

Lia O. Dowd of Dowd & Dowd, an attorney for the plaintiffs couldn’t be reached immediately for comment.

The case is Harris et al. v. City of St. Louis, ED110325.

RELATED: Court upholds verdict, award in KCPD chase

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