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Claimants Need More Than Conclusory Allegations to Prove Reckless or Willful and Wanton Misconduct: Immunity Remains When Officers Use Appropriate Care in Following Suspect

In the case of Jones v. Soto, 2023-Ohio-3107, an appellate court reversed a trial court’s denial of summary judgment, finding instead that police officers were statutorily immune pursuant to R.C. 2744.03 for injuries to passengers in a motor vehicle collision which occurred during the officer’s pursuit of a criminal suspect.

According to the defendants, the officers began following a speeding vehicle which was operated by a suspect who they believed was impaired and had been recently involved in gang-related activity.  In following the suspect, the officers slowly proceeded from a distance, with cruiser lights activated, after the suspect’s vehicle went into a field at a high rate of speed.  According to the officers, they were not in an active vehicular pursuit when the suspect lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a vehicle in which the claimants were passengers.

The passengers argued that the officers were not immune from liability because the officers operated the cruiser in a wanton and reckless manner in violation of police high-speed-chase policy, namely, by following a suspect for a non-violent crime into a field in a residential area at a high rate of speed.

In evaluating statutory immunity, the Court relied upon the totality of the circumstances and multi-factor approach set forth in the case of Hoffman v. Gallia Cty. Sheriff’s Office, 2017-Ohio-9192.  In doing so, the Court found the passengers’ allegations insufficient to meet the onerous standard of establishing reckless or willful and wanton misconduct.  The Court explained that the passengers needed to do more than simply refute the officers’ version of the situation. Furthermore, even if the Court were to accept the allegation that the officers were speeding, and even if the officers violated department pursuit policies, neither allegation was sufficient to satisfy the standard of reckless and wanton conduct.

The dissenting opinion points out that the Court seemingly interpreted all evidence in a light most favorable to the officers as opposed to the passengers as the nonmoving party, including disregarding the affidavit testimony of the passengers regarding the speed of the pursuit and their expert testimony regarding the standard of care.

To read this case, click here.

Authors: Matthew John Markling and the McGown & Markling Team.

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