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Overcoming Qualified Immunity In Personal Injury Lawsuits Against The Police

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Police officers do a very dangerous job and have to make difficult decisions about taking action, including physical violence, against other human beings all the time. Most of the time, the police are within their rights to act and are protected from lawsuits even if they make a mistake—but not always. If you were injured by police officers acting under the color of their authority, you need to know when they have immunity from lawsuits and when they don't. This is what you should know.

Qualified immunity is designed to protect officers from frivolous lawsuits.

if the police didn't have some protection against lawsuits, officers would probably be afraid to do their jobs for fear of being sued. While most police actions are justified, sometimes the police rely on bad information or simply make a mistake—in which case qualified immunity shields them from lawsuits even if someone gets injured as a result.

However, qualified immunity does have its limitations:

  • The police officer had a reasonable belief that he or she was acting within the scope of his or her authority (or actually was within that scope of authority).
  • The police officer is acting on official business (not personal).
  • The police officer doesn't behave in a grossly negligent manner, which led to the cause of the injury.

If all three of these conditions don't exist, you can overcome the presumption of qualified immunity and proceed with a personal injury lawsuit.

There's an important distinction between ordinary negligence and gross negligence.

Negligence is at the heart of all personal injury lawsuits—because negligence is defined as a failure to exercise reasonable care under the situation. The duty to exercise reasonable care is what helps keep people from acting without regard to the safety of others. 

However, ordinary negligence doesn't overcome the qualified immunity that police officers have when acting in an official capacity. Instead, you have to prove that the officer in question showed gross negligence, which is a blatant act and a conscious disregard of the need for reasonable care. In other words, the officer had to act in such a way that any reasonable person would have been able to predict that his or her actions could hurt someone.

How do you know if you have a case that meets these terms?

Sometimes, the situation is fairly obvious. For example, a Florida police officer used his badge and uniform to apparently personally harass a woman, eventually firing his taser at her and kneeing her in the chest. The fact that he lied to his superiors and claimed that he accidentally discharged the taser into a pillow is a good indicator that he knew his actions weren't lawful. He also apparently attempted to patch things up with his victim—by making her a cake that said, "Sorry I Tased You." While the officer is still claiming qualified immunity in his response to the victim's lawsuit, he's been placed on leave—a sure indication that his superiors wish to distance themselves from his actions.

Other cases may not be so clear, so consult with a personal injury attorney as soon as possible after the event in order to discuss the situation in detail. Your attorney can help you determine if your civil rights have been violated and the likelihood of a successful lawsuit given the details of your case.