Schatz v. Cutler, 395 F. Supp. 271 (D. Vt. 1975) is the first case to consider the liability of police officers in a motor vehicle pursuit under the Vermont statute 23 V.S.A. § 1015. In that case, several police officers were pursuing a fleeing vehicle when the fleeing vehicle collided head-on with the vehicle being driven by the plaintiff. The pursuit began after Officer LaFlam “observed two cars … one of which was filled with young people.” Id., at 273. When the driver of the car filled with young people (Raymond Cutler) saw Officer LaFlam, “he rapidly changed direction and drove away” and “Officer LaFlam pursued him in his cruiser.” Id. During the pursuit, Trooper Doyle “joined in the pursuit.” Thereafter, another Trooper (Trooper Cronan) pulled alongside Cutler, at which time Cutler swung toward Trooper Cronan, and then Cutler collided with the plaintiff in the oncoming lane. Id., at 273-74. Importantly for this case, “Trooper Doyle and Officer LaFlam pulled their cruisers to a stop without becoming involved in the accident.” Id., at 274.
In the subsequent action against the police officers, the federal court considered on summary judgment as a matter of first impression the following question: “[W]hether a police officer can be held liable for the injuries of a person whose car is struck by another driven by an individual lawbreaker being pursued by the police, when the police vehicle does not come into any physical contact with the injured’s car[.]” Id., at 274.
Applying 23 V.S.A. § 1015, and denying summary judgment for Trooper Doyle and Officer LaFlam, the Court held that a police officer “is called upon to drive with due care under the circumstances and is not protected ‘from the consequences of his reckless disregard for the safety of others.’” Id., at 274 (quoting § 1015(c)). Given the factual scenario upon which the Court denied summary judgment for Trooper Doyle and Officer LaFlam, it is clear that the decision to be involved in the pursuit up to the time of the collision was enough to give rise to liability under § 1015. Notably, the only actions taken by Trooper Doyle as set forth by the Court was that he “joined the pursuit” and then stopped “without becoming involved in the accident.” Id., at 273-74.
In contrast to Trooper Doyle and Officer LaFlam, the Court granted summary judgment to one police officer who “was involved in the initial pursuit” but who “did not continue the chase after his cruiser was in a collision.” Id., at 275. Accordingly, as to the officer who terminated his pursuit prior to the collision, “any negligence on his part was too remote in time and place from the actual collision to have formed a part of the proximate cause of the ultimate injury.” Id. From these differing outcomes, it is clear that an officer’s decision to become involved in a pursuit—and the decision to continue the pursuit up until the time of a collision—are facts which are properly considered in the liability analysis under 23 V.S.A. § 1015.
In Morais v. Yee, 162 Vt. 366 (1994), the Vermont Supreme Court, for the first time, discussed the duty of a law enforcement officer engaged in a motor vehicle pursuit. Morais involved a police pursuit of a motorcycle which resulted in the motorcycle crashing and the death of the motorcyclist. The pursuit began when the motorcycle driver failed to stop for an officer, at which time the officer “turned on his lights and siren and pursued him.” Id., at 368. Later, a second trooper “joined in the chase.” Id. Ultimately, the motorcycle driver tried to pass a third officer who was ahead of the pursuit, at which time he lost control and struck a rock. Id., at 368-69.
In the subsequent lawsuit, the trial court dismissed the negligence claims against the police officers under the doctrine of qualified immunity. Id., at 369. In reversing summary judgment, the Supreme Court held, in part, that the police officers were not entitled to qualified immunity because they had a “duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons” under 23 V.S.A. § 1015(c). Id., at 373. In other words, as described by the Court, a police officer has “a duty to conduct high-speed chases with due regard for the safety of all persons.” Id., at 373 (emphasis added). The Court cited Schatz v. Cutler for the premise that “[t]he language [of § 1015(c)] clearly mandates that police officers may be held accountable when they fail to conform to this duty.” Id., at 373-374. In sum, the Court explained that 23 V.S.A. § 1015(c), together with similar statutes in other states, “embody a policy of balancing ‘the duty of law enforcement officers to apprehend violators of the law…with a duty of care to the general public as well.’” Id., at 374.
More recently, in Rochon v. State, 2004 VT 77, the Vermont Supreme Court again addressed the duty of a law enforcement officer as established by 23 V.S.A. § 1015. Following Morais v. Yee, the Court explained that “the Legislature established a clear duty under that the source of the duty was § 1015(c)” and that “qualified immunity did not apply.” Id., ¶ 10.
What is clear from these Vermont cases is that § 1015(c) imposes upon police officers a broad “duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons.” In the context of high-speed motor vehicle pursuits, the police officer’s duty is to conduct the pursuit with due regard for the safety of all persons. The duty to conduct a pursuit in a safe manner necessarily involves the decision to initiate a pursuit in the first place, as well as the decision to continue the pursuit as factors change during the course of the pursuit.