SALT LAKE CITY — The state's high court ruled Tuesday that a Cache County family can pursue its wrongful death lawsuit against a Weber County sheriff's deputy who was pursuing their son before he died in a rollover crash.
The Utah Supreme Court also found that law enforcement officers "owe a duty" to consider the safety of fleeing suspects in some circumstances.
Attorneys on both sides of the case say the ruling may impact the way Utah police officers act when they pursue fleeing suspects and may prompt departments to revisit their chase policies.
In a unanimous ruling penned by Justice Ronald Nehring, the court found that the family of Wayne J. Torrie can pursue its claim that the deputy's pursuit amounted to negligence. Nehring wrote that the case poses a question not posed before, stating: "This case presents an issue of first impression for this court — whether law enforcement owes a duty of care to fleeing suspects.
"Under a plain language analysis of the governing statute, we hold that law enforcement officers engaged in pursuit owe a duty to all persons, including fleeing suspects."
According to the ruling, the 16-year-old Petersboro teen came home from school on March 23, 2010, upset after having been teased by classmates. After arguing with a sibling, he took the family's Suburban and left the home.
The teen's mother called the Cache County Sheriff's Office, reported that her son had taken the family vehicle and asked that he be located and taken into custody. While on the phone, Wayne returned home but left again after discovering that his mother was speaking with police dispatchers, the ruling states.
The boy's mother tried to reach him on his cellphone, but he did not pick up. Instead, he texted her and indicated that he was suicidal.
"Mrs. Torrie informed dispatch that her son was threatening to commit suicide by crashing the vehicle if police attempted to apprehend him, but she did not ask law enforcement to stop their search efforts," the ruling states.
After learning the teen had most likely crossed into Weber County, Cache County officials advised dispatchers in Weber County of the situation, providing a description of the teen and explaining that he was suicidal and had told his parents he was almost out of gas. Cache County asked that the boy be taken into custody if located.
Soon after, Weber County sheriff's deputy Denton Harper saw Wayne and verified it was the vehicle and driver that were being sought. He pulled up behind him while the teenager was stopped at a stop sign, and the deputy turned on his overhead lights.
"Wayne disregarded deputy Harper's attempt to pull him over, turned right at the stop sign and began to accelerate," the ruling states. "Deputy Harper followed in pursuit."
Wayne apparently repeatedly crossed over double yellow lines to pass vehicles and reached speeds of 99 mph. Harper reported to dispatch that he was traveling about 75 mph.
"After less than a minute with deputy Harper in pursuit, Wayne's vehicle abruptly left the road and rolled several times in a neighboring field," Nehring wrote. "Wayne was ejected from the vehicle during the crash and subsequently died from his injuries."
Second District Judge Robert Dale ruled in favor of both Weber County and Harper and found no duty was owed to the teen. The high court's ruling reversed Dale's decision, as the justices agreed with the Torrie family that state law that exempts emergency vehicles from general traffic laws still imposes a duty that extends to fleeing suspects.
The decision only applied to the negligence claim against Harper, though, as the court found that the Torrie family failed to meet its burden when it came to its case against Weber County. Still, Peter Stirba — who represents Weber County and Harper — said the ruling did not comment on the deputy's actions or the case against Harper.
"The court decision did not address at all whether or not the officer involved here acted reasonably or appropriately — which we believe he did — nor does it address if he was even the cause of Mr. Torrie's untimely death, which we believe he was not," Stirba said.
He said the court's decision does "pose concerns for law enforcement" officers who may be more hesitant to pursue a suspect for the fear of facing a lawsuit. He suggested that various police agencies may revisit their policies on pursuits in light of Tuesday's ruling.
"There are public policy implications that exist that are of concern because if a duty is imposed on law enforcement in regards to fleeing suspects, regardless of what the suspect is fleeing for, it would create a huge disincentive for law enforcement to pursue anyone," Stirba said.
James McConkie Jr., attorney for the Torrie family, said the decision should prompt police officers to use their judgment before initiating a pursuit and realize they don't have blanket immunity from legal action.
"This is an absolutely positive change," McConkie said. "This is going to save lives. It's not going to interfere with good law enforcement, and we'll all be safer as a result."
But he said a balance is necessary and police should only chase when they know someone presents an imminent or immediate threat to the community. Wayne Torrie, though, was not such a suspect, McConkie said, stating that the teenager never even surpassed the speed limit until the police officer turned on his lights.
"It's not worth the life of a 16-year-old who has taken his mother's car without permission to end up in a death," McConkie said, adding that police officers should be trained to better handle suicidal suspects and others in crisis. "This was a horrible outcome."
Nehring wrote that the justices looked at state statute and a prior Utah Supreme Court ruling, which found that sometimes pursuits are not the best course of action, especially when the violation is minor and a pursuit could pose a risk of serious injury or death to bystanders or the fugitive. Ultimately, the details of the case required a closer look.
"We decline to interpret the statute beyond the plain wording chosen by the Legislature but acknowledge that the ultimate negligence analysis, including breach and proximate cause, is very case-specific and fact-intensive," the ruling states.