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Court Nixes Innocent Driver Suits

November 15, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today turned away a bid to make it easier for innocent motorists hurt in high-speed police chases to sue police in federal court.

The court, without comment, rejected an appeal in which four California motorists argued that innocent people who sue police in such cases should not have to meet the same high legal hurdle as suspects who flee and provoke a chase.

Gabriel Torres, Noni Onossian, Cyril Onossian and Herve Onossian were struck and injured by fleeing suspects in two separate accidents on California roads.

Torres was driving on the Hollywood-Ventura freeway in 1994 when struck by a vehicle being chased by state police at speeds up to 130 mph. Torres was blinded in one eye, his nose was shattered and plates had to be installed in his head.

The motorist pursued by police had been observed as drifting but driving at a safe speed before officers gave chase, Torres’ lawyer said.

The Onossians’ vehicle was struck in 1991 by a car pursued in West Hollywood by Los Angeles County police. The car had been speeding and driving erratically in heavy traffic when officers began chasing it.

A federal judge let Torres pursue his federal lawsuit but threw out the Onossians’ claim. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that neither lawsuit could go forward.

The appeals court based its ruling on a 1998 Supreme Court decision that said police officers generally cannot be sued under a federal civil rights law for killing or injuring a fleeing suspect during a high-speed chase. The justices said police can be held liable only when their actions would ``shock the conscience.″

The appeal acted on today said, ``Wholly innocent citizens, as opposed to suspects in crimes, should not be left with no remedy at all.″ California law gives police immunity from state lawsuits over such injuries.

The appeal also said the officers’ conduct met the ``shocks-the-conscience standard.″ The police in both instances ``knew their actions were extremely dangerous″ but continued in pursuit because they knew they would not be held liable, the appeal contended.

The case is Torres vs. Bonilla, 99-452.