Government Liability in Tennessee for Automobile Accidents Involving Police Officers

As discussed on this blog, private individuals are frequently the subject of negligence and wrongful death lawsuits for automobile accidents that resulted in injuries to others or lost lives.  But it is not always private individuals or private automobiles that are the cause of deadly car crashes.  In many instances, employees may be driving company cars when they suddenly run a red light, or a government official may be using a government vehicle that becomes part of an accident scene. In these situations, liability can become more complicated and extend beyond the driver to the corporation or government agency that was “controlling” the driver or the car at the time of the accident.  A recent case in the Court of Appeals of Tennessee considers what happens when government employees and their vehicles are involved in life-changing accidents.

In Henry Hold v. City of Fayetteville, Tennessee, the family members of a deceased individual, Henry Holt, sued the city of Fayetteville for its involvement in a car crash that killed Mr. Holt.  On August 13, 2013, a Fayetteville Police Officer drove his police car to investigate an incident involving Misty Shelton. The police officer attempted to arrest Ms. Shelton but did not follow the correct procedures when restraining her. She escaped, stole the police officer’s police car, and took off down the road. Ms. Shelton’s speeding police car collided with a vehicle in which Mr. Holt was a passenger, and Mr. Holt was killed, while other passengers also suffered injuries.

Mr. Holt’s family members brought suit against the City of Fayetteville for negligence.  In Tennessee, municipalities are typically immune from lawsuits for torts under the Tennessee Governmental Tort Liability Act (GTLA). However, the plaintiffs argued that two statutory exceptions applied in this instance, allowing for the lawsuit to proceed:  (1) there was negligence in the operation of a motor vehicle, and (2) there was a negligent act by an employee.  The district court disagreed and dismissed the lawsuit, and Mr. Holt’s family appealed.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals acknowledged that the GTLA allows for a waiver of immunity when one of the two exceptions identified by the plaintiffs applies. However, the Court first noted that while the police car was involved in the accident that led to Mr. Holt’s death, the police officer was not negligently “operating” the vehicle at the time of the accident. Indeed, he was not in the vehicle at all, since Ms. Shelton had stolen it. Accordingly, the Court held that the first exception did not apply to the circumstances of this case.

As to the second exception, the Court held that the police officer was acting in the scope of his employment when he negligently restrained Ms. Shelton, but the City was entitled to immunity for his actions based on a separate doctrine of immunity:  the public duty doctrine. Under this doctrine, public employees are shielded from lawsuits for injuries that are caused by their breach of a duty owed to the public at large. The Court of Appeals determined that the duty to properly restrain an individual in order to prevent them from further harm was a duty owed to the public, not specifically to Mr. Holt’s family. Moreover, since there was no special relationship between the police officer and Mr. Holt’s family, they could not allege that a special duty was owed to them that was breached. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the City of Fayetteville was entitled to immunity from suit under the GTLA and the public duty doctrine, and the case was properly dismissed.

The Court of Appeals decision is an important reminder that accident and personal injury cases involving government employees or government property may come with unique challenges and procedural issues that often require analysis and input from experienced litigation counsel.

If you have recently been the victim of a severe automobile accident, knowledgeable car accident attorney Eric Beasley can help you investigate whether government employees or officials may be potential defendants in your lawsuit and accordingly whether issues of immunity may arise. For more information or to discuss the circumstances of your case, contact the Law Office of Eric Beasley today at 615-859-2223.

Related Blog Posts:

Can Tennessee Emergency Vehicles Be Held Liable for Accidents That Occur While On Emergency Calls?, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, February 10, 2016.

Tennessee Courts Find Presumption of Comparative Fault for Drivers Running a Light, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, January 6, 2016

Tennessee Personal Injury Claims Increase Despite Reduction in Auto Accidents, Tennessee Personal Injury Blog, October 15, 2015