Police and Law Enforcement

Five officers sued over chase injuries are immune from liability, court rules

The Ohio Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that five police officers sued by a woman injured during a high-speed chase are immune from legal liability.

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There was disagreement among the justices on immunity standards.

The majority ruled that officers chasing suspects receive the same level of immunity provided by state law to all government employees. Justice Judith French wrote officers couldn't be held liable unless they acted "in a wanton or reckless manner," adding that no other public employee faces "the potential danger, violence or unique statutory responsibilities (to apprehend criminals)" that police do.

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"We expect law enforcement officers to protect the public, but that expectation need not mean that an officer must sit idly by while a suspect flees the scene of a crime, particularly when the suspect's flight itself endangers the general public further," she wrote.

She said lower courts had improperly expanded the immunity to officers unless their conduct was "outrageous or extreme." But she said the officers in this case were entitled to immunity because there was no evidence they acted maliciously, in bad faith or recklessly.

Justice Sharon Kennedy agreed with the court's judgment, but disagreed with some of the ruling. Two justices dissented, saying the case should be sent to a trial court.

The ruling stemmed from a lawsuit by Pamela Argabrite, who was injured in 2011 when burglary suspect Andrew Barnhart's vehicle hit hers head-on as he fled from Miami Township and Montgomery County officers. Barnhart died in the crash.

Argabrite's attorney didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the ruling.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine earlier this year formed an advisory group on law enforcement vehicle pursuits in an effort to reduce deaths from such chases. The group urged training on best practices and safety techniques.