Massachusetts Police Car Chase Negligence: Legally, How Does That Work?

Readers of both this blog and my Massachusetts criminal law blog, , know that I’ve written a great deal recently on the subject of the 3 deaths that resulted last month from a car crash in Cotuit Massachusetts, that followed a high-speed police car chase of a criminal defendant who was out on probation at the time. In fact, I wrote a 3-part post on that subject, which dealt with the criminal law aspects of that case and probation issues.

Today’s post here deals with potential civil liability of the Town of Mashpee Police Department, for engaging in a high-speed chase of that suspect, who according to police reports was driving at speeds of 100 MPH or faster. To its credit, the Mashpee Police Department issued a public statement just a couple of days ago, publicly acknowledging that the police should have broken off the high-speed chase in the interests of public safety. Readers will likely have two questions: 1) Can the Police Department here be held liable for the 3 deaths that resulted – one of whom was Kevin P. Quinn, a 32 year-old Afghanistan combat veteran who was killed by the speeding driver being pursued by Mashpee Police – even worse so – after he had just left the hospital where his wife had given birth to his and his wife’s newborn son? 2) Why would a police department call off a pursuit of a criminal suspect?

First, as to whether a municipal police department can be held civilly liable (i.e., ordered to pay monetary damages) for the injuries or death of someone caused by a high-speed chase by its officers, the answer is: Yes – depending on the specific circumstances involved. The legal test is one of negligence, and in order to determine if the police were negligent under the factual circumstances that were present, a number of factors will need to be weighed as evidence, including but not limited to:

  • What type of area did the chase cover – densely settled or open?
  • Residential neighborhoods or highways?
  • Rural area or congested urban area?
  • Time of day?
  • Day of the week?
  • Prevailing weather conditions?
  • Prevailing road conditions?
  • The nature/type of previous crime or suspicion that precipitated the chase?

All of these factors and more will come into play in the determination of whether or not the police department involved, was negligent in pursuing the chase. But even if negligence can be proven, there are additional hurdles for a plaintiff to surmount. The first of these is that, in Massachusetts and other states, there is something called a “municipal cap” on liability that a city or town can be ordered to pay in any case in which it is held civilly liable. In Massachusetts, that cap is $100,000 – hardly sufficient to compensate the family of someone very seriously injured or needlessly killed by a high speed police chase.

In some cases, there is, legally, a way around that municipal liability cap: To do so, a plaintiff must demonstrate not only that the police chase was negligent, but that it was reckless. That is a higher, more difficult standard to reach, but it has been done successfully in the past, and it can be done – with a very experienced law firm that is familiar with this very narrow area of legal practice. As a Boston Massachusetts negligent police chase lawyer, I’ve been involved with several of these cases, and I can assure anyone who is facing such a situation: Experience – and proven results – count for everything. The average, general practice law firm is not suitable to handle this type of case: Police chase accidents and fatalities are extremely complicated cases, and they aren’t for the attorney who is not very experienced in them.

If you are facing such a situation, or care about someone who is, give us a call. I’d be glad to explain the process involved with these types of cases. In the meantime, be safe and aware of your surroundings when driving.