Tennessee Court Affirms No Liability of Police Officers For Letting Drunk Driver Go

A recent decision from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee reaffirms the rule that police officers cannot be held liable for failing to stop or arrest a drunk driver. In Harris v. City of Knoxville, a pedestrian brought suit against Knoxville and two police officers individually after he was seriously injured by a drunk driver. As it turned out, the drunk driver had been stopped only a short time before he struck the pedestrian by a suspicious police officer. After investigating, however, the officer determined that while the passenger of the vehicle may have been intoxicated, it did not appear that the driver was drunk or driving under the influence of drugs. No field sobriety test was administered.

The injured pedestrian plaintiff’s suit alleged several claims against the officers and the City, but the case turned on whether the failure to stop the drunk driver was a deprivation of the injured plaintiff’s due process rights. This appears to have been a creative attempt by the plaintiff to recover damages for his injuries, but well-established case law should have foreshadowed the outcome. In particular, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in DeShaney v. Winnebago County which held “a State’s failure to protect an individual against private violence simply does not constitute a violation of the Due Process Clause.” The District Court set out the test for determining whether an individual could sue as an exception to the general rule in DeShaney. In order to bring a claim under the “state created danger” exception, a plaintiff must show: (1) an affirmative act by the state that either created or increased the risk that the plaintiff would be exposed to an act of violence by a third party; (2) a special danger to the plaintiff wherein the state’s actions placed the plaintiff specifically at risk, as distinguished from a risk that affects the public at large; and (3) the state knew or should have known that its actions specifically endangered the plaintiff. Under this test, it seems fairly clear that a police officer cannot be held responsible for failing to arrest a drunk driver. First, under such a circumstance the officer does not “create” or “increase” any risk. And, second, letting a drunk driver continue driving does not specifically endanger any individual, but rather poses a risk (at most) to the general public. And this is exactly what the District Court held.

Indeed, given the relative ease in which the District Court dismissed this case, it seems somewhat surprising that it was even brought in the first place. If the attorney for the plaintiff had done more than a cursory review of the law, it would have been hard to conclude that the case would be held viable by the District Court. While a plaintiff injured through no fault of his own certainly deserves compensation, that doesn’t necessarily mean a case should always be brought. Here, it seems likely that the responsible driver didn’t have car insurance or didn’t have sufficient car insurance, and that the plaintiff also didn’t have uninsured (UM) motorist coverage. As a result, the plaintiff tried to hold a third party (the police) responsible for the injuries caused by the drunk driver. The result of the case, though, makes clear that even if the police behave negligently in letting a drunk driver continue driving, neither the police officers nor their employer can be held liable for any resulting injuries.