The law in North Carolina regarding crashes caused by law enforcement officers during high speed chases is designed to protect the officers from civil liability. This means that even if a law enforcement officer admits to negligently causing a wreck during a high speed chasethe officer may be found not liable for any injuries or harm caused by the collision.
For the family members of Sandra G. Allmond and Taylor Strange, 11, as well as the survivors of the recent crash that happened on I-85 Business near Jamestown, this means they may have to take action in order to recover any compensation for their injuries and other losses. The only way to hold the Trooper liable for the harm he caused is to prove that his conduct amounts to “gross negligence.”
There have been several court cases brought by innocent victims of crashes caused by North Carolina police officers involved in high speed chases. Many of these cases have resulted in decisions in favor of the law enforcement officer, and the victims or the survivors have received nothing for their injuries, medical bills and other losses. The most recent example of this unjust result is the case of Holloway v. N.C. Dept. of Crime Control & Public Safety/N.C. Highway Patrol. This case was decided first by the North Carolina Industrial Commission and later on appeal by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.
Cases brought by victims or survivors against state agencies in North Carolina, such as the Highway Patrol, must be brought in the North Carolina Industrial Commission by way of what is called the North Carolina State Tort Claims Act. Such a case is decided by a Commissioner of the North Carolina Industrial Commission. The standards and rules in the Industrial Commission are similar to those in state court, except that there are no juries in the Industrial Commission, and there is a cap, or limit, on the amount that one can recover against the State.
In Hollowell, the North Carolina Court of Appeals found that the North Carolina Industrial Commission had correctly decided that a speeding State Trooper was not grossly negligent in causing a crash that was, at least in some ways, similar to the crash caused by Trooper Goodnight. One of the most obvious differences in the two cases is that Trooper Goodnight failed to have his siren on at the time of the most recent crash. Another difference is that Trooper Goodnight apparently failed to “call in” to his dispatcher that he was involved in a hight speed chase. There are probably many other differences in the two cases, but we have very limited information at this time.
In the Hollowell case, the Court of Appeals noted that:
“North Carolina General Statutes, section 20-145 exempts police officers from speed limitations while chasing or apprehending “violators of the law” so long as police officers operate their vehicles with “due regard for safety.” N.C. Gen.Stat. § 20-145 (2007). This exemption, however, does not protect police officers from “the consequence of a reckless disregard for the safety of others.” Id. With respect to section 20-145, our Supreme Court has explained “that the standard of care intended by the General Assembly involves the reckless disregard of the safety of others, which is gross negligence.” Young v. Woodall, 343 N.C. 459, 461-62, 471 S.E.2d 357, 359 (1996). “[G]ross negligence has been defined as wanton conduct done with conscious or reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others. Further, an act is wanton when it is done of wicked purpose, or when done needlessly, manifesting a reckless indifference to the rights of others.” Parish v. Hill, 350 N.C. 231, 239, 513 S.E.2d 547, 551-52 (1999) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). We previously have noted that “North Carolina’s standard of gross negligence, with regard to police pursuits, is very high and is rarely met.” Eckard v. Smith, 166 N.C.App. 312, 323, 603 S.E.2d 134, 142 (2004), aff’d, 360 N.C. 51, 619 S.E.2d 503 (2005) (per curiam).”
Therefore, the next question that may be answered, by the Court of Appeals or Supreme Court, in this line of cases may well be whether a Trooper’s failure to “turn on” his siren and “call in” the pursuit during a high speed pursuit amounts to gross negligence. This author strongly believes that the answer to that question is an unequivocal “yes.” There is no excuse, other than a conscious indifference for the rights and safety of everyone else on the highway, for a State Trooper to not have both his lights and siren “on” during a high speed chase and to “call in” the pursuit to his dispatcher. Any other answer is simply unjust.