Do I Have A Police Brutality Case?
Beltran-Serrano v. City of Tacoma, No 95062-8, was decided by the Washington Supreme Court on June 13, 2019. Â The decision holds that a police officerâ€™s use of deadly force may be actionable both under a negligence theory relating to the circumstances leading up to a police shooting and under an intentional tort theory based on the officerâ€™s decision to actually pull the trigger. Â In such cases, plaintiffs must remain aware of Washington civil procedure, including CR 8(e)(2), which allows the plaintiff to plead â€śas many separate claims or defenses as the party has regardless of consistency.â€ť Â A plaintiff must therefore plead both theories when attempting to sue a police officer or municipality for unlawful use of force.
Police Brutality in Washington State
In Washington, RCW 9A.16.040 governs circumstances of â€śjustifiable homicide or use of deadly force by public officer, peace officer, [or] person aidingâ€ť same. Â This statute will allow an officer to argue to a jury that his/her actions were privileged under the good faith standard the statute requires of such individuals employing deadly force. Â The Washington Supreme Court found in Beltran-Serrano that an officerâ€™s statutory privilege can be effectively argued to a jury in context with the facts that will be presented by a plaintiff attempting to prove a negligence theory.
Washington’s Public Policy Doctrine
In Washington, we also have a â€śpublic duty doctrineâ€ť which recognizes that governments, unlike private persons, are tasked with duties that are not actionable in tort law (in other words, the official state actor cannot be sued). Â The courts recognize that the purpose of this doctrine is to ensure that governments do not bear greater tort liability than would a private individual. To overcome the doctrine, a plaintiff must show that the offending police officer, prison guard, etcetera, breached a duty owed to the injured person as an individual, not just a duty owed to the general public.
Washington’s Supreme Court Decision on Police Brutality
In Beltran-Serrano, our Supreme Court analyzed the need for a balanced approach to applying the public duty doctrine so that tort liability to protect victims, deter dangerous conduct and provide a fair distribution of the risk of loss can be maintained. Â The Supreme Court noted that there has existed since at least 1926 in this state, a common law duty of care to â€śrefrain from causing foreseeable harm in interactions with others,â€ť a duty imposed upon everyone, not just official actors like police or other peace officers. Â Thus, there is no conflict between allowing a negligence case to proceed against a police officer and the policy underlying the public duty doctrine so long as a plaintiffâ€™s case is not attempting to place a greater duty of care on the officer than would exist for any other member of the public.
In conclusion, our Supreme Court in Beltran-Serrano summed up that if police and other public officers â€śdo act, they have a duty to act with reasonable care.â€ť Â Washington Law Center understands the complex law that applies to situations of police and other public officer brutality against members of the public. Â We have achieved numerous seven figure ($1 million or above) settlements and verdicts on behalf of our personal injury clients, including those who have been negligently harmed at the hands of public officials. Â If you believe you may have a police brutality claim, or other negligent or intentional tort case against a public officer, please give us a call for a free consultation.