CHICAGO - A state appeals panel has given a second chance to a lawsuit blaming the Chicago police for the injuries two girls sustained when the vehicle they were in was struck by another vehicle fleeing the police.
The mother of the two girls sued the city, the police officers and the estates of the two occupants in the fleeing vehicle, both of whom were killed in the crash. In her suit, plaintiff Kelly Winston alleged the crash that injured her daughters was the result of a dangerous police chase in a residential neighborhood, contrary to the department’s own regulations.
The crash occurred in April 2014, after police attempted to stop a vehicle owned by Dalila Smith and driven by Glenn Jones, allegedly because it was missing a front license plate. According to the lawsuit, Jones pulled over at first, then took off at high speed, possibly reaching speeds as high as 80 mph in the 30 mph zone. He also ignored several traffic devices, the lawsuit stated, before running a red light and crashing into the vehicle carrying the Winston family.
When Jones fled the traffic stop, the lawsuit says, police pursued him for about three blocks, reaching speeds up to 55 mph. The chase lasted for about 20 seconds, and the officers were telling dispatchers they were ending the pursuit just as the two vehicles collided, according to court documents.
In her lawsuit, Winston argued that the officers engaged in “willful and wanton conduct” by pursuing a driver wanted for a minor traffic violation and continuing the chase after it became apparent, from his speed and disregard for traffic control devices, that Jones was driving in a risky manner that could result in a collision.
The city raised five affirmative defenses, arguing public employees are not liable for negligence while enforcing the law; they are immune from liability for unsuccessfully attempting to enforce the law; Jones was responsible for the Winstons’ injuries and public employees acting within the scope of employment are not liable for injuries caused by another person; the officers are immune from liability for failing to apprehend Jones before the crash; and the officers are immune from liability for failing to successfully make an arrest.
When the city moved for summary judgment, Winston argued that the officers were also aware of the department’s policy on pursuits, which forbids officers from pursuing a fleeing vehicle wanted on nothing more serious than a nonhazardous traffic offense.
A Cook County judge sided with the city in March 2018. The court found the pursuit was brief, the police did not drive at excessive speeds, traffic was moderate, the police car’s lights and sirens were activated, and the police officers were in contact with dispatch, and did not behave recklessly.
A three-justice panel of the Illinois First District Appellate Court saw the matter differently, however. In reversing the summary judgment, the appellate justices noted that although the facts of the case are undisputed, “the inferences that may be drawn from these facts are very much in dispute.”
“While a 20-second flight by Jones could be reasonably inferred to have been Jones’ flight alone rather than the city officers’ pursuit, it is also reasonable to infer that Jones was still fleeing when he struck the Winstons’ vehicle because the city officers had been pursuing him,” Justice Sheldon A. Harris wrote in the court's opinion. “A jury should be allowed to weigh those competing reasonable inferences.”
The appellate panel was careful to state that its reversal does not imply they think the police officers did behave recklessly, only that the question is a matter for a jury and should not have been decided in summary judgment. The case was remanded to Cook County court for further proceedings.
Justices Joy V. Cunningham and Mathias W. Delort concurred with the reversal and remand.
According to Cook County court records, the plaintiffs are represented by attorneys with the Law Office of Daniel E. Goodman, of Rosemont.