Legal Memorandum: Police Officer's Duty to Exercise Due Care

Issue: Under Rhode Island law, is a motorist’s illegal conduct the legal cause of injuries suffered by a third party as a result of a police chase?

Area of Law: Litigation & Procedure, Personal Injury & Negligence
Keywords: Duty to exercise due care; Police chase; Injuries suffered by a third party
Jurisdiction: Rhode Island
Cited Cases: 555 A.2d 328; 508 A.2d 647; 492 A.2d 1219
Cited Statutes: None
Date: 05/01/2000

"Where an independent unforeseen cause intervenes . . . as the cause of the mischief, the second cause is ordinarily regarded as the proximate cause . . . ."  86 C.J.S. Torts § 31 (2000).  Generally, a police officer has a duty to exercise due care with regard to the public at large, but "he is entitled to believe that other drivers will observe the law of the road and maintain control at all times over the vehicles they are operating . . . ."  60A C.J.S. Motor Vehicles § 375 (1997) (citations omitted).  

A Rhode Island case demonstrates the significance of intervening criminal activity in causation analyses.  In Pelletier v. Kurdziel, 508 A.2d 647 (R.I. 1986), both the lower court and the supreme court rejected the argument that an officer’s instruction to a motorist to drive to the police station while he followed caused of the driver’s subsequent collision with a wall.  508 A.2d at 648-49.  "Here the uncontradicted evidence is that Paulette’s attempt to leave the scene was the direct cause of the collision."  Id.  The officer in Pelletier attempted only to stop the fleeing vehicle.  He did not continue to pursuit stage when the driver accelerated and "was not in the immediate vicinity of the car" when it crashed.  Id. at 649.   

Even without the Pelletier decision, public policy cannot support holding police officers responsible for injuries arising from criminal flight from valid traffic stops.  Police officers are empowered to use their discretion to enforce the traffic laws.  See, e.g., […]

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