Police Liability for Emergency Accidents

The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland issued an opinion yesterday in the case of Mayor and City Council of Baltimore v. Hart. In this case, the plaintiff was injured when a Baltimore City police officer ran a red light. The City of Baltimore’s attorneys contended, however, that the police officer had the right to go through the red light since he had his siren and emergency lights on and he was responding to an emergency.

Baltimore filed a motion in limine to prevent the accident victim’s attorney (one of which was Irwin Weiss, a well-respected lawyer in Baltimore County) from introducing the Police Department General Order No. 11 which set for relatively strict standards for the police officer’s duty of care in going through an intersection like the one at issue in this case (the intersection of Madison and Wolf Streets in Baltimore City). Instead, Baltimore’s lawyer argued that the Maryland Transportation Article § 21-405 applied, which applies less stringent standards.

The trial court not only allowed the admission of the General Order but also allowed the relevant portion to form one of the jury’s instructions. The jury returned a verdict in favor of the injury victim, awarding damages in the amount of $46,894.05. The portion of the judgment entered against the City was $20,000 (the maximum recovery by Maryland law because the police officer was responding to an emergency). The remainder of the judgment was entered against Allstate Insurance Company under the injury victim’s uninsured/underinsured motorist policy.

The City’s lawyers appealed the trial court’s decision to allow the accident victim’s lawyer to reference to the general order and its use as a jury instruction. The Court of Special Appeals of Maryland found that the Baltimore City Police Commissioner’s instructions to officers on safe driving practices as articulated in Baltimore Police Department General Order No. 11–90 was properly admitted as evidence by the accident victim’s attorney. The court specifically rejected Baltimore’s argument that such standards are not admissible under theMaryland Court of Appeals decision in Richardson v. McGriff, 361 Md. 437 (2000).

In Richardson, a suit was brought against a Baltimore City police officer who shot a man who, along with six of his friends, had broken into a vacant apartment in Baltimore City. The court in that case held that the introduction of police guidelines on the use of deadly force was not appropriate and instead the standard to determine the reasonableness of the police officer’s use of lethal force should be determined by examining the circumstances surrounding the shooting, i.e. the reasonable man test. But the Hart court distinguished the guidelines in Richardson as discretionary and subject to the officer’s judgment in the moment, but the traffic guidelines were more specific guidelines that the police officer in this case should have followed.

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