I came across a New York Times’ article the other day titled, “Bystanders Shot by the Police Face an Uphill Fight to Win Lawsuits.” We don’t get a lot of cases brought by bystanders struck by police bullets in my neck of the woods (Central New York), but the article interested me because it deals with an area of law I write and speak about frequently; “governmental immunity”.
First, a bit of background. The legal doctrine of “governmental immunity” in very general terms says this: As long as a governmental actor, such as a police officer, exercises his or her discretion in making a decision, the victim of any negligence can’t sue for the harm. This doctrine is meant to protect our governmental agencies, such as police departments, from a barrage of lawsuits and allow them to make their sometimes necessarily spur-of-the-moment decisions without fear of being sued. It also protects all of us taxpayers from getting hit with huge bills for lawsuit verdicts.
But recently, in my opinion, the Court of Appeals has taken the doctrine too far. As a result, it seems almost impossible to hold a police officer liable for his or her negligence. For example, in 2010 the Court threw out a lawsuit brought by a bystander struck by police bullets intended for an armed robbery suspect, even though the police officers testified THEY NEVER EVEN LOOKED TO SEE IF THERE WERE BYSTANDERS NEARBY BEFORE THEY STARTED FIRING. The police won that suit by relying on police guidelines stating that officers should not fire their weapons when “in their professional judgment, doing so will unnecessarily endanger innocent persons”. They claimed they had exercised their “professional judgment”, and thus were off the hook. But how could they even exercise that “judgment” if they never looked to see whether there were any bystanders? Four of the seven justices said it did not matter; the police were acting within their discretion when they fired, and thus were protected by “governmental immunity”.