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Gonzalez v. Johnson

Supreme Court of Kentucky

June 13, 2019

LUIS J. GONZALEZ II, ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF LUIS J. GONZALEZ APPELLANT
v.
JEREMY JOHNSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SCOTT COUNTY DEPUTY SHERIFF, AND TONY HAMPTON, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SCOTT COUNTY SHERIFF APPELLEES

          ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NO. 2016-CA-001911-MR FAYETTE CIRCUIT COURT NO. 15-CI-00791

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: William R. Garmer Gamier And Prather, PLLC Jerome Park Prather Garmer And Prather, PLLC

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEES: Daniel Barry Stilz Kinkead & Stilz, PLLC Robert Coleman Stilz III Kinkead & Stilz, PLLC Lynn Sowards Zellen Kinkead & Stilz, PLLC Jonathan Fannin Kinkead & Stilz, PPLC

          COUNSEL FOR AMICUS CURIAE KENTUCKY LEAGUE OF CITIES, INC.: Spencer D. Noe Gess, Mattingly & Atchison, P.S.C. Donald Markam Wakefield Gess, Mattingly & Atchison, P.S.C.

          COUNSEL FOR AMICUS CURIAE KENTUCKY JUSTICE ASSOCIATION: Kevin Crosby Burke Burke Neal PLLC Jamie Kristin Neal Burke Neal PLLC

          COUNSEL FOR AMICUS CURIAE PURSUITSAFETY: Gregory Allen Belzley Belzley Bathurst Attorneys

          OPINION

          LAMBERT, JUSTICE

         Luis Gonzalez was killed when a criminal suspect crashed head-on into his vehicle during a high-speed chase which was initiated by Scott County Deputy Sheriff Jeremy Johnson. Johnson's vehicle was not involved in the actual collision. Gonzales' estate filed a wrongful death suit against both Deputy Johnson and Scott County Sheriff Tony Hampton. The Fayette Circuit Court granted summary judgment in favor of Deputy Johnson and Sheriff Hampton based on Chambers v. Ideal Pure Milk Co., [1] and its per se no proximate cause rule. We now overrule Chambers insofar as it holds an officer cannot be the proximate or legal cause of damage inflicted on a third party by a fleeing suspect. We adopt the majority rule that will allow juries to determine whether a pursuing officer's actions were a substantial factor in causing injury to a third party and apportion fault accordingly.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         In January of 2014, officers from the Scott County Sheriffs Department and the Kentucky State Police joined forces to carry out a sting operation to apprehend a suspected heroin dealer. Their plan was to have a man named Gregory buy from the dealer, and then have a confidential informant buy the heroin from Gregory.

         At around 9 p.m. the suspected dealer pulled into the agreed upon meeting place. Deputy Johnson was instructed to conceal his presence during the exchange and wait for a lead officer's order to perform a traffic stop on the suspect if possible. During this time Deputy Johnson ran the suspect's license plate number and learned the name of the car's registered owner.

         After the exchange, Gregory identified the dealer as "Chief," an alias used by Kennan McLaughlin. An officer with the Lexington Police Department who was in contact with the lead officers confirmed his identity. Lexington Police officers then went to McLaughlin's home in Fayette County to stake it out.

         Meanwhile, Johnson witnessed McLaughlin run a red light and, without authorization, began to pursue him. A litany of things went wrong with the pursuit. To begin, it had been raining, making the well-traveled road slippery. Further, the cruiser Deputy Johnson was using that evening was a K-9 unit, and K-9 Officer Hugo was in the back seat. The partition in the cruiser was unlocked, and the restless dog was able to poke his head through the partition into the front seat. Finally, while the lights on Deputy Johnson's cruiser were functioning, the siren was not. Deputy Johnson claimed he did not realize the siren was broken until two miles into the pursuit. He testified that, though he knew pursing a suspect without his siren violated KRS[2] 189.940 and the Scott Co. Sheriff Dept.'s practices, he continued the pursuit for about another mile.

         As McLaughlin and Deputy Johnson were approaching an S-curve, they both slowed down. It was at this time that Johnson assessed the situation and decided to terminate the pursuit. But, almost immediately after he decided to stop pursuing McLaughlin, he saw McLaughlin's car fishtail out of control and hit what Johnson thought was the guardrail. Tragically, McLaughlin actually hit the decedent Luis Gonzales' car. Luis was pronounced dead at the scene. Geneva Spencer, the driver, also later died due to her injuries.

         Gonzales' estate filed a wrongful death suit against both Deputy Johnson and Tony Hampton, the Scott Co. Sheriff. Before discovery was complete, the trial court granted summary judgment in Deputy Johnson and Sheriff Hampton's favor. The court found that, based on Chambers, Deputy Johnson's actions were not the proximate or legal cause of Gonzales' death as a matter of law. The Court of Appeals also held that it was bound by Chambers and reluctantly affirmed.

         The single issue presented by this appeal is whether this Court should abandon the per se no proximate cause rule established by Chambers. Based on the following, we reverse.

         II. PER SE NO PROXIMATE CAUSE RULE

         "Appellate review of a summary judgment involves only legal questions and a determination of whether a disputed material issue of fact exists. So we operate under a de novo standard of review with no need to defer to the trial court's decision."[3]

         For the purposes of a wrongful death suit such as this one, KRS 411.130(1) provides: "Whenever the death of a person results from an injury inflicted by the negligence or wrongful act of another, damages may be recovered for the death from the person who caused it, or whose agent or servant caused it." To demonstrate that the defendant was negligent a plaintiff must show that (1) the defendant owed the plaintiff a duty of care; (2) the defendant breached that duty of care; (3) a causal connection between the defendant's conduct and the plaintiffs damages; and (4) damages.[4] The causal connection element is composed of two elements:

Cause-in-fact and legal or consequential causation. Cause-in-fact involves the factual chain of events leading to the injury; whereas, consequential causation concerns the concepts of foreseeability and the public policy consideration on limiting the scope of responsibility for damages. In Kentucky, the cause-in-fact component has been redefined as a "substantial factor" element as expressed in Restatement (Second) of Torts ยง 431. The scope of duty also ...

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