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Personal Injury Liability: Police and Law Enforcement

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Can Police be held Liable for Personal Injuries Resulting from Failure to Help Citizens?

Although it is possible, police are rarely found responsible for personal injuries due to their failure to help citizens.  For example, suppose B has threatened to hurt A, and A reports this to the police.  Even if the police fail to protect A, they still may not be held liable for any personal injury B inflicts on A.

Why are Police not held Liable for such Personal Injuries?

Police generally only have a duty to protect the public at large.  So while police can be held liable for failing to respond to a wild shootout in a public subway, they may not be held liable for someone who gets injured while their car is robbed.  In other words, police have no duty to protect individual citizens from injury by others.

Why is there No Duty to Protect Individual Citizens?

Courts generally do not want to hold anyone responsible, even police, for the criminal actions of another party.  In most cases of personal injury, victims are more likely to sue a well-funded police agency rather than the person responsible for the crime.  Allowing victims to do this would discourage local governments from providing extensive police protection to their citizens, due to the potential for increased liability.

Are there any Exceptions to the Police's Lack of Duty to Protect Individuals?

A court may impose a duty to protect individual citizens if an individual can prove the following four elements:

  1. The police either promise or attempt to aid the individual: For example, if a person calls the police, and the dispatcher tells them help is on the way, the police have now made an indirect promise to protect that individual.
  2. The police know that their inaction is more than likely to lead to personal injury or other harm: For example, if a police officer sees a child being chased by an armed adult, it is more than likely that the officer's inaction will lead to the child's harm.  In this situation, courts want police officials to address crimes and personal injuries that they have a good chance of preventing.
  3. The police come into direct contact with the individual: The individual must personally tell law enforcement officials about the presence of danger.  An example of this would be a person approaching a police officer and saying someone is trying to kill them.  The idea behind this is to make sure police officials are aware of the individual's need for protection. 
  4. The individual justifiably relied on the police's promise to protect: In other words, the individual must have reasonably depended on police providing him or her protection.  For example, assume X has broken into Y's house to injure Y.  Y subsequently hides in a closet and calls 911, who tell him help is on the way and to stay in the closet.  In this situation, if Y stays in the closet waiting for police to arrive, he has justifiably relied on the police's promise to protect.

In contrast, what if Y were to come out of the closet with a baseball bat?  In this case, Y's attempt at self-defense takes away his justifiable reliance on police protection.  This is different from Y hiding in the closet, since Y hasn't withheld his right to act by relying on 911's assurance that help is on the way.

How Can an Attorney Help Me?

If you are a victim of personal injury due to police inaction, your must challenge the general rule against law enforcement liability.  As a result, it is extremely important to consult an experienced personal injury attorney, who can determine if your case qualifies under the preceding exception.  An attorney can analyze your case under the four exceptions requirements, as well as take any steps needed before suing a law enforcement agency.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 03-01-2016 01:02 PM PST

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