According to the Associate Press, two members of Paterson’s Office of Emergency Management were charged with misconduct for their failure to properly respond to a fatal motorcycle accident. The Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office alleges that the auxiliary officers were driving an OEM vehicle in Paterson on April 17 and following behind a motorcycle, and when they were within 100 feet of the motorcycle, they improperly activated the siren and the motorcycle crashed. The driver of the motorcycle was killed in the crash. It is unclear in the report whether the officers actually caused the crash by striking the motorcycle or startling the driver and causing him to crash, or if the officers had nothing to do with the crash. But in any event, the officers continued driving and failed to stop and render aid, and failed to report the accident to headquarters or emergency responders.
The officers in this case were criminally charged with misconduct. But does an accident victim like this motorcycle driver have a civil case against the police officers or the city?
The answer really depends on whether or not the police officers were acting appropriately when they activated their siren. A police officer who is driving normally and hits and injures a person may be liable (as well as the police department and city) if they caused the collision. The injured person would also have to satisfy the requirements of Title 59, which basically states that a municipality and its employees are immune from suit unless the injury is a permanent loss of a bodily function or system that causes a significant life impact. Obviously, a person fatally injured in a crash satisfies the requirement. However, there is also an exception in cases where police are in hot pursuit of a suspect. In such a case, the police are completely immune, no matter how badly they are driving and no matter how much an innocent third party is injured. In this case, the officers were charged with misconduct, which would indicate that there is significant evidence showing that the officers were not really in hot pursuit, but activated their siren for some other reason. Finally, people should note that the city is generally not liable when city employees fail to properly report an accident. These are just a few things to keep in mind if you are injured in New Jersey by a police vehicle with sirens activated.
We will continue to monitor this important case and our condolences go out to the family of the victim.