Late at night on March 30, 2015, a West New York police officer was making his way to work. Driving in his personal vehicle, a blue 2013 Honda Accord, the rookie officer was making his way down JFK Boulevard in North Bergen when he encountered the victim.
The victim was a young man who was crossing JFK Boulevard by the 70th Street intersection. It was dark at night, the victim was wearing dark clothing, and the victim was not walking on or near a crosswalk. The victim was struck by the officer’s car and went flying, landing on the sidewalk face down.
The officer immediately stopped his car and got out to assist. The victim was passed out with head trauma. A Guttenberg Police Department officer was driving by and also helped to assist. North Bergen Police and the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office were called to the scene following a 911 call. By the time North Bergen EMS arrived, the victim had gone into cardiac arrest. Both the driver and victim were taken to Palisades Medical Center for treatment. The victim did not die until the next day while being treated at the hospital.
The car accident is still undergoing an investigation. So far, it has been determined by the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office Crash Investigation Unit that the officer’s Honda was not speeding at the time of the accident.
Police officers and police departments are usually shielded from liability. However, they can be sued under federal law in a 42 U.S.C. 1983 lawsuit. Congress enacted this statute to allow victims to sue government entities and employees for depriving them of their constitutional rights. One such example may be that of police brutality in which a police officer chases an unarmed suspect and shoots him in the back. This deprives the victim of his Fourth Amendment rights.
To be liable in a Section 1983 claim, a police officer must have been acting in his official duties as a police officer. If he was off duty, then the best course of action is to sue the individual as a tortfeasor, not a police officer.
In a car accident negligence case, coverage depends on the municipality you live in. Most towns have the same or a similar policy. When the crash occurs, the officer is required to report it to his superiors. An incident report is taken. Then an adjuster from the city will come to your home to assess the damages and calculate the cost to fix your car. Then the city will either cut you a check or pay a body shop to fix the damage.
However, the city will only cover car accident damage when the police officer is acting in his official duties as a police officer. For instance, if the police officer is on a high-speed chase of a suspect and scrapes your car when it’s parallel-parked on the side of the road, the city will cover the damages. The city has an insurance policy for the police department that covers accidents such as this.
If the officer is off-duty, though, the city will likely not cover the damages. Off-duty officers are required to drive their personal vehicles in their spare time. This includes paying for their own insurance in their names. Therefore the best course of action is to go after the individual or his insurance company directly.
Some towns may offer an exception to this rule if the officer is not technically on the clock but is still acting in his official capacity as an officer. For instance, he witnesses a crime while on his way home and begins chasing the suspect in his personal car.
Why would you want to sue a police department instead of the actual person for damages incurred during a car accident? With the police department, you know the department or city will have adequate insurance to cover your damages. However, around 50% of personal drivers are either uninsured or underinsured.
If you or a loved one has been injured in a car accident, talk with an experienced personal injury attorney at the Law Offices of Thomas L. Gallivan, PLLC today to review your legal options.