Police in high-speed chases should not be held liable for injuries to passengers in cars they are pursuing, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said Monday.
The justices affirmed a lower-court ruling that dismissed a lawsuit brought by the parents of Joshua Sellers, a 21-year-old man who died in a 2006 crash after a police chase in Abington Township. Attorneys for Celeste and Richard Sellers had argued that passengers in a vehicle may be considered innocent bystanders.
Under state law, police owe "a duty of care" to innocent bystanders who could be injured or killed in the course of a high-speed pursuit. But the Supreme Court said the same duty does not extend to passengers.
The pursuit began around 3:50 a.m. on Dec. 24, 2006. Officer Edward Howley saw a red Mustang speeding on Jenkintown Road and turned on his sirens, according to court documents.
Driver Scott Simons, who admitted in court that he had been drinking all day and was "scared of getting a DUI," accelerated to a speed his friend Matthew Senger said was "well over 100."
About a minute later, Howley caught up with Simons in front of Senger's home. Simons sped off again, this time turning off his headlights, according to Senger's testimony.
Simons crashed into a tree and a pickup truck, according to court documents. None of the occupants was wearing a seat belt, but Simons and Senger suffered only minor injures.
Sellers was thrown 20 feet from the vehicle and died.
His parents filed a wrongful-death lawsuit, arguing that police should have stopped the pursuit because it compromised the safety of the two passengers, who according to Senger's testimony were asking Simons to stop.
The case never got to a jury. In June 2013, Commonwealth Court ruled, 4-1, to dismiss the suit.
"The decision to pursue a fleeing vehicle is one that must be made in a matter of seconds," Justice Correale Stevens wrote in the unanimous Supreme Court decision. "To require officers to not only establish the presence of passengers, but also discover the relationship of the passengers to the fleeing driver, would be unmanageable."
Deputy Chief John A. Livingood said Monday that the department's policy on pursuits had not changed. He said he could not reveal specific standards - including whether passenger safety is taken into consideration - because it would undercut their effectiveness.
"It is not a single bright line decision-making," he said. "It's pretty much a totality of the circumstances. Time of day, number of people out on the street, those types of things."