The LAPD has been involved in numerous auto accident cases in recent years, including a crash that led to a $6.6 million settlement, explains a California car accident lawyer. This settlement was the largest that the LAPD has paid out to resolve a traffic collision case. According to the Los Angeles Daily News, this recent accident and other car crash incidents have prompted the LAPD to take steps to encourage safe driving:
• Learning safe driving techniques from the trucking industry and the U.S. military.
• Comparing LAPD crash statistics with data from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Office and the California Highway Patrol to better understand accident rates.
• Eliminating certain equipment near the driver and otherwise reducing distractions inside LAPD vehicles.
• Participating in a national study conducted by the RAND Corporation in which law enforcement officers are able to provide anonymous answers to questions about a crash they were involved in.
• Making use of black boxes in cars that can monitor driver movements and that can be used to determine the cause(s) of a crash. While some cars are equipped with these systems already, the LAPD does not currently have the computer equipment to monitor driving data or to download information recorded by the black box.
• Focusing on better investigations after the crash. The hope is that this will encourage officers to be more careful, as the investigations will act as a deterrent. According to the Los Angeles Times, crashes should be investigated in the same manner as officer-shootings in order to encourage accountability.
Holding Law Enforcement Accountable
In California, individuals who work for the government in law enforcement are covered under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. As established in Government Code section 815 to 818.9, sovereign immunity protects government workers and entities from being sued for doing their jobs.
However, immunity is not absolute and if a government worker or entity behaves in a manner that is outside the scope of his/her employment, that is reckless or negligent and that causes harm to someone else, that worker/entity may be held liable as long as the behavior falls within an exception to government immunity rules. For example, in 815.2(a), the California Government Code makes clear that “A public entity is liable for injury proximately caused by an act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment if the act or omission would, apart from this section, have given rise to a cause of action against that employee or his personal representative.”
While it is important to review the government code for a full and detailed listing of exceptions to sovereign immunity, the general rule is that if a private person could be sued for the action(s) taken by the government agent, then the government agent/entity can be sued as well. In other words, if officers were driving in an unreasonably negligent or careless manner, such as by speeding in a non-emergency situation or failing to obey traffic signs, then they may be sued. Under vicarious liability laws, employers are responsible for the actions of their employees while performing their work, so the law enforcement agencies themselves may also be sued when an exception to government immunity exists.
Because of these exceptions to sovereign immunity, the police department can and is sued when an LAPD officer becomes involved in an accident caused through his or her negligence. This presents a significant financial burden, as the Los Angeles Times reports that the LAPD has been forced to pay out an estimated $30 million in damages in the past decade to resolve an estimated 400 traffic-accident claims. Hopefully, the new safety measures and investigatory procedures will address this expensive public safety problem.
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