A Utah Supreme Court decision could have a "chilling effect" on law enforcement's ability to chase down wrongdoers, according to an attorney who worked on the case.
In a decision issued Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled that police have a "duty of care," or a responsibility, to the people they chase down. The decision ruled in favor of the family of Wayne Torrie, 16, who died in 2010 when he crashed in Weber County after a high speed police chase. Torrie's family sued the officer that chased him, as well as the Weber County Sheriff's Office.
Tuesday's decision reverses a lower court decision that threw out the lawsuit on the basis that police didn't have a duty to wrongdoers they're chasing. As a result of the ruling, Torrie's family will be able to sue Weber County Deputy Denton Harper, who chased the boy. The ruling didn't settle the lawsuit itself or determine whether Harper breached his duty. Instead, it merely said a duty exists. Torrie's family will not be able to sue the Weber County Sheriff's office.
Attorney Peter Stirba, who represented Harper and the sheriff's office, said the decision means that anyone being chased by police can turn around and sue the pursuing officers.
"If that person, for whatever reason, gets hurt, they can sue," Stirba explained. "It sort of creates a perverse incentive to a wrongdoer."
For that reason, Stirba said the case sets a significant precedent that is seemingly at odds with both common sense and laws in other states. Police will now have to consider potential lawsuits from wrongdoers even as they are chasing those same people.
"It puts them in a very awkward position," Stirba said. "This is just is another layer of difficulty in the judgments they have to make."
But Jim McConkie, the Torrie family's lawyer, said police already have a responsibility to be judicious when undertaking an inherently risky action, such as a high-speed car chase.
"Police officers have rules and regulations they're supposed to follow," McConkie said. "They're not supposed to chase people if they haven't committed serious offenses and aren't a threat to the community."
McConkie said Harper knew who Torrie was and could have just picked him up later.
"They create a danger by chasing around after a 16-year-old boy," McConkie said.
Stirba called the case, and Torrie's death in particular, tragic, but added that he and his legal team believe Harper acted reasonably.
The case began when Torrie's family alleged Harper and the sheriff's office mishandled the chase. On March 23, Torrie arrived home from school upset because he had been harassed at school. He subsequently took the family's Suburban and his mother called the Cache County Sheriff's Office for help locating him.
Torrie eventually drove into Weber County. He also reportedly texted his mother saying he was afraid of going to jail and would try to escape or even harm himself. Torrie's family has argued that the sheriff's office knew about the texts but pursued him anyway. He eventually crashed into an embankment and suffered fatal injuries.
The case now goes back to the trial court.
Twitter: @erinalberty Case started with teenager being harassed at school
Allegation • The case began when the family of 16-year-old Wayne Torrie alleged that the Weber County Sheriff's Office and a deputy mishandled a chase on March 23, 2010.
Harassment • Wayne had been harassed at school, arrived home upset and took the family's Suburban. His mother called the Cache County Sheriff's Office to help find him.
Warning • Wayne eventually drove into Weber County. He also reportedly texted his mother saying he was afraid of going to jail and would try to escape or even harm himself.
Fatal crash • Wayne's family has argued that the Weber County Sheriff's Office knew about the texts but pursued him anyway. He eventually crashed into an embankment and died.