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Recklessness, Due Process Violations and Theories of Liability

On Behalf of | Jun 4, 2021 | Firm News |

Occurring outside of Illinois but not outside of the federal Court of Appeals for the Seventh

Circuit, a potentially important decision regarding Government and Police liability was decided in May. The case concerned the death of a motorist, Erica Flores, when her vehicle was struck by a police officer who sped through a red light on the way to the location of a traffic stop in South Bend, Indiana. Ms. Flores’ family brought suit against both the Officer and the City, alleging that the officer had violated her substantive due process rights through his recklessness, and the City was likewise liable due to their failure to adequately train its officers.

The District Court initially dismissed the claim against the officer and the City based on the pleadings alone, citing precedent, specifically Hill v. Shobe, 93 F.3d 418 (7th Cir. 1996), that the simple act of a police officer speeding through a red light was not sufficient to create the sort of specifically targeted injury (which would be indicated by criminal recklessness or deliberate indifference to safety) that would qualify as a civil rights violation.

Here, the 7th Circuit panel distinguished the more generalized facts of Hill from the specific circumstances that occurred in South Bend. The key difference, in their eyes, was that Ms. Flores was killed by an Officer who was not in hot pursuit or on his way to aid in an emergency at the time of the accident, but who rather was allegedly traveling of speeds up to 98 MPH through a mostly-residential area towards the scene of a routine speeding traffic stop, one where the Officers involved in the traffic stop itself (who were part of a specialized team in a high-activity area) hadn’t actually asked for external aid, but which he had simply heard was occurring over the radio. There was no evidence that there was any sort of emergency occurring or, indeed, if there was any desire for assistance at all from other Officers. In short, the court found that the Officer’s conduct was not reckless because he was speeding through a red light, but because he was engaged in that activity for no apparent reason. It was, in the words of the Court, something that a jury could reasonably find was an “extreme and obvious risk” which rose to the level of criminal recklessness or deliberate indifference.

The District Court had dismissed the case against the City because, having found that that the Officer did not violate the Constitution, there was no way for the City to have violated the Constitution through his training. When the 7th Circuit reexamined this issue in light of their reversing the decision regarding the dismissal of the claim against the Officer, they emphasized that the claim against the City is a very demanding one, requiring a showing that the City knew or should have known that their training had failed to prevent their employees from violating the rights of those they came into contact with. In this case, the complaint alleged that the City had actual knowledge that its officers had a history of driving recklessly, and that this Officer in particular had on multiple occasions operated his vehicle at high rates of speed. Despite the City having a policy whereby Officers were told not to exceed 50 MPH (South Bend being municipality with relatively low speed limits), they never once issued any formal discipline for violating this policy or mandated additional training for speeding. While acknowledging the difficulty that Ms. Flores’ family will have in proving her case, the 7th Circuit ruled that they had plead enough to survive the Motion to Dismiss.

This decision is significant both in that it upholds what is essentially a negligence theory for a Police Officer engaged in his job (a rare enough thing to begin with) but also that it explicitly support the “failure-to-train” theory of municipal liability for violation of constitutional rights. The validity of this theory is something of a minority view amongst the Circuits, and the Supreme Court has never actually upheld liability on that ground (something which the court actually points out in its opinion). This may not be the last that we hear of this case outside of Northern Indiana.

Attorney Travis Dunn