SEATTLE – A $4.6 million jury award to a honeymooning Chehalis couple severely injured during a police chase in Seattle has been reinstated by a unanimous three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals.
The decision issued last Monday cannot be used as a precedent, but poses a dilemma for law enforcement agencies, potentially opening the door to lawsuits anytime damage occurs in a police chase, lawyers for the city and police force say.
The case arose after a car pursued by police and driven by Ronisha Kelley, 21, a nanny who had her employers’ 2-year-old daughter in the back seat but did not have permission to use the vehicle, hit Ronald and Jeanette Ashley at a downtown intersection on June 11, 2003.
Jeannette Ashley, now 51, said her knee was shattered and she has to wear a brace, while her husband, 56, had a crushed pelvis and still has a constant headache from his head hitting the curb.
“We’ll never be the same,” she said.
Kelley was convicted of two counts of vehicular assault and evading a police officer.
The Ashleys sued her, her employers and the city, then settled with the nanny and her employers’ insurance company for $2.75 million, agreeing that the money would be applied toward whatever verdict was returned in King County Superior Court. The jury returned a verdict of $4.57 million and held the city liable for the remaining $1.7 million.
After the verdict, the city asked and Judge William L. Downing agreed that the city should not be liable for the $1.7 million.
Lawyers for the city argued that a police officer should be considered negligent only for failing to end a chase that becomes too dangerous, not for initiating a chase.
However, case law and Seattle police policies make it “clear that the initial decision to pursue a law violator is a part of the officer’s duty to drive with reasonable care and due regard for the safety of others,” appellate Judge Ann Schindler wrote.
“If this stands, then an officer who does everything right still faces a tremendous burden. It sends a message: ‘Just don’t do anything,’ ” said Leo E. Poort, a Seattle police legal adviser.
The appellate ruling was issued as nonpublished, meaning it cannot be cited as a precedent in other legal cases.
“Still, it’s hanging out there, and we have to figure out what we’re going to do about it,” Poort said. “I mean, I don’t know what we’re supposed to teach our officers now when these situations arise. This officer did everything he could do and it still cost the city millions.”
He said the ruling might lead to legislation that would revise the state’s emergency-vehicle statute, but he’d like the state Supreme Court to overturn the appellate decision. If the case went to the state’s highest court, though, a ruling to uphold the appellate decision would have more far-reaching consequences.
“If the (appeals) court is right, then every time a police officer turns on his emergency lights, the city is responsible for whatever happens,” Assistant City Attorney Robert Williams said, “and we can’t live with that.”
The Ashleys’ lawyer, Todd W. Gardner, dismissed those concerns.
“Their distress over this ruling is absurd,” Gardner said. “It is consistent with the way the law has always been.”