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The family of a teen who was killed during a Weber County police chase may sue the sheriff's deputy who was driving, the Utah Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.
A district judge previously had dismissed a lawsuit filed by the family of Wayne Torrie, the teen who died in a 2010 crash at the end of a 99-mph police chase after he had taken the family car without permission.
On Tuesday, the state Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officers do owe a "duty of care" to the subject of a chase, and not just bystanders. The court pointed to the state statute that allows emergency vehicles to drive exempt from normal traffic laws; the law states that the privilege does not relieve drivers of emergency vehicles of the duty to drive in a reasonably prudent way. The Supreme Court noted that the legislature didn't make any exception for fleeing suspects.
The court found that Melvin and Raeghn Torrie may sue Weber County sheriff's Deputy Denton Harper, but not Weber County.
Wayne Torrie took his parents' SUV on March 23, 2010, upon returning to their Petersboro home in a funk because he had been teased at school. After an argument with a sibling, Wayne Torrie left the home in the SUV. Raeghn Torrie called the Cache County sheriff's office for help finding the teen. Wayne Torrie realized the police were looking for him and texted his mother, saying he was afraid to go to jail and would flee even if it meant hurting himself. He went to Weber County and was chased by Harper; the Torries claim the Weber officers knew about Wayne Torrie's text message but chased him anyway.
Wayne Torrie hit an embankment an rolled the car; he was ejected and died the next day. In the lawsuit, the Torries claimed Weber County and Harper did not properly train for, or follow rules and regulations regarding, high-speed pursuits. The county has denied those allegations.
Torrie's parents sued the Weber County Sheriff's Office, claiming high-speed car chases are risky and should be reserved for dangerous criminals only. Weber County argued that while officers may have a duty to not endanger innocent third parties when they are in a car chase, they are not responsible for the safety of the suspect they are pursuing. Judge Robert Dale agreed with the county and threw out the case.
In connection to the lawsuit, the Utah State Senate this year proposed giving immunity to law enforcement officers in cases where a suspect is injured in a chase. The bill failed.