When policemen are engaged in a reckless police chase in Illinois, as long as they are considered to be “executing” or “enforcing” the law, the Tort Immunity Act will apply. Therefore, to survive a motion to dismiss or motion for summary judgment in an action against the city, a plaintiff and his or her Chicago personal injury lawyer in police chase cases must prove willful and wanton conduct of the police officer. In other words, a plaintiff must show that the officer demonstrated an “utter indifference to or conscious disregard for the safety of others”, as required under the Tort Immunity Act. 745 ILCS 10/1-210.
Recent Illinois case law, in particular Shuttlesworth v. City of Chicago, 377 Ill. App. 3d 360 (1st Dist. 2007), makes it more difficult to survive a motion for summary judgment on the issue of willful and wanton conduct. Nevertheless, a more recent case, Hudson v. City of Chicago, 2007 WL 4410409 (Ill App. 1st Dist. Dec. 14, 2007), makes the Shuttlesworth decision a little easier to swallow for potential plaintiffs in police chase cases.
In Shuttlesworth, the plaintiff’s automobile was struck by a vehicle that was attempting to elude police. The plaintiff sued the city, alleging willful and wanton conduct on the part of Chicago Police officers in pursuing the fleeing vehicle shortly before the collision occurred. The police officers were working in a marked vehicle when they noticed a dark blue Chevy whose driver and passenger were not wearing seat belts. The officers began to follow the vehicle and checked the license plate number on the computer, which did not belong to the pursued vehicle. As they continued to approach, they activated their Mars lights and used a hand held spotlight to signal the driver to stop. The pursued vehicle stopped, but then placed the vehicle in reverse initially, and then sped away and the officers pursued. The officers stated in their deposition that they pursued the vehicle for 30-40 seconds. One officer said that he did not contact dispatch because his communicator was around his leg, and the other stated that he activated his Mars lights and sirens. One officer testified that while in pursuit, he was traveling the 25 mph speed limit initially and then 40 to 50 mph. The Officer testified that he deactivated his Mars lights and siren when he lost sight of the vehicle and slowed the vehicle back down to the speed limit. A few seconds later he observed a flicker and smoke six blocks away.
The Court held that no willful and wanton conduct existed, affirmed summary judgment accordingly. The plaintiffs alleged that the “totality of the circumstances” demonstrated that the police officers engaged in willful and wanton conduct by: (1) initiating pursuit; (2) failing to activate emergency conduct; (3) failing to notify superiors of the chase; (4) using excessive speed; and (5) pursuing for an unreasonable length and duration. 377 Ill. App. 3d at 366.
The Court held that such allegations did not rise to the level of willful and wanton misconduct. First, it “is not willful conduct to attempt to apprehend a fleeing offender even for minor traffic violations.” Id. at 368. Second and third, “failure to activate emergency equipment, or to notify superiors of a pursuit, does not constitute willful and wanton conduct.” Id. Fourth, evidence “that the police vehicle was [traveling] . . . at a high speed, alone, does not rise to the level of willful and wanton.” Id. Fifth, the pursuit “lasted [only] 30 to 40 seconds.” Id. at 367.
The Court noted that the question of whether an officer’s actions amount to willful and wanton misconduct “is normally reserved for the trier of fact; in this case, the jury.” Id. at 366. A trial court may resolve the issue on summary judgment only “when all the evidence viewed in the light most favorable to the nonmovant so overwhelmingly favors the movant that no contrary determination based on that evidence could ever stand.” Id.
In Shuttlesworth, the Court noted that a “police officer cannot be found to have acted willfully and wantonly when he pursues a vehicle driven recklessly as long as the officer does not pursue the vehicle in a reckless fashion.” Id. at 368. There, the Court found that “there is nothing in the record to create a genuine issue of material fact as to whether the officers pursued the Monte Carlo in a reckless fashion.” Id.
Hudson v. City of Chicago involved a similar suit against the City of Chicago, alleging that a police officer, through willful and wanton conduct, caused an automobile collision on the Eisenhower expressway that left Hudson with serious and permanent injuries including paraplegia. The Appellate Court affirmed a $ 17.5 million verdict in favor of Hudson. Hudson was driving westbound when he heard sirens, and saw flashing lights. He pulled over to the right shoulder, with just his left rear tire on the line. Defendant Officer was leaving the station when she heard a call that a homicide suspect in a white van was being pursued on the Eisenhower. Defendant Officer acknowledged that dispatch did not request her participation in the pursuit. She had just completed her lane change from lane 2 to lane 1 when she saw Hudson’s car pulling out in front of her from the shoulder. She applied her brakes but struck the rear of Hudson’s car. She heard the sirens of the other police cars chasing the suspect but was not sure that she actually saw them.
The Hudson Court concluded that a jury was not unreasonable in concluding that Defendant Officer’s conduct was willful and wanton. The Court noted that the question of whether an injury has been inflicted by willful and wanton conduct is a question of fact to be determined by a jury. The jury was “free to disbelieve” the City’s position that Hudson pulled out in front of the officer’s vehicle, and also was “free to give great weight” to the officer’s admission that she was not looking at the lane she was going in, as well as the testimony that the officer’s vehicle “jumped” from lane 4 to lane 1 for no apparent reason. Further, the Court rejected the City’s argument that the jury was improperly instructed regarding willful and wanton conduct.