Two stories grace the Southern California news blotter this week as a police officer was injured in a motorcycle accident while in another precinct a woman died as she was held in custody. Both stories regard different police stations but it goes to show that even law enforcement is not immune to tragedy and injury.
In the first story, a motorcycle officer was hospitalized after he was involved in a collision in Anaheim. As of Friday morning, the officer is listed in good condition and is recovering in an area hospital. While the cause of the accident is still under investigation, all involved escaped without serious injuries.
The motorcycle collided with a 2004 Impala at the intersection of Harbour and Lincoln Boulevards. It appears from preliminary investigations that the driver of the Impala was unsure who had the right of way in a situation involving a left-turn yield. The driver remained on scene and was very cooperative with responding officers. Due to the crash, Lincoln Boulevard was closed in both directions for some time on Thursday afternoon.
In another tragic story involving law enforcement, a woman in Huntington Beach died while in police custody after complaining of symptoms of high blood pressure. The suspect was arrested on July 1 on a DUI related offense. While awaiting processing, she complained of various symptoms and was transported to Western Medical Center. Her condition continued to worsen over the next several days leading to her eventual death on Wednesday.
Orange County officials have scheduled an autopsy on the woman. Protocol requires that the Orange County district attorney must fully investigate any deaths occurring while an individual is in police custody.
While both stories are tragic and certainly not the type of occurrence we like to see, we can’t help but wonder about the civil liability consequences inherent in accidents of this sort. In the first story, it may be possible for one of the parties to raise a cause of action against the other in tort for negligence. However, being that one of the parties involved in the crash is a member of law enforcement, that fact throws some tricky legal obstacles into the mix that could potentially bar the civilian driver from any recovery against a governmental agency.
Similar governmental immunity issues are present in the second story. In the unlikely event that the woman’s death was proximately caused by mistreatment or negligence by those handling her while in custody, it is possible for her family to file a wrongful death suit against the police department responsible for her death. Once again, there may be limitations and restrictions on tort recovery against a law enforcement agency, especially if all involved were acting congruent with their job responsibilities and within the scope of employment.