If you’re tuning in to the national news, then you’re aware that the issue of physical injuries by police officers has been front and center in recent weeks. While there are a lot of social issues being discussed across the country, the fact remains that people might be thinking more critically about encounters they’ve had with their local law enforcement.
To be clear, every profession includes people who are well-intentioned and who try to do their best every day. But there are also people in every profession who don’t follow the guidelines they’re provided and the training they’ve had — this includes lawyers, doctors, teachers, mail carriers, bus drivers, police officers, and anyone else you know who has a job.
A police officer’s job is to enforce laws and protect the public welfare, which is a huge responsibility. It also means that there are times when a police officer is acting in what they believe is appropriate for the situation, but someone still becomes injured.
In this post, we’ll discuss what legal rights you may have if you or a loved one were injured by a police officer.
What is excessive force?
Police officers may use the degree of force necessary to maintain control of an incident, make an arrest, or protect themselves or another person (or the public) from harm.
An officer’s use of force is considered excessive if the action taken is more than what’s necessary to maintain safety or control of an incident.
Within the level of physical force that a police officer is allowed to exert, they may not exert force without taking the physical safety of the individual into consideration. In other words, force can be used to subdue a person who is threatening harm or violence to a police officer or civilian, but only to the extent required to prevent that harm or violence. An officer can’t exert more force than necessary in a way that would cause injury.
This standard applies to any law enforcement officer, whether they’re a member of your local municipal police force, a county sheriff, FBI, or any other government-funded law enforcement agency.
Governmental immunity for police officers
You might know that government agencies are often shielded from lawsuits by sovereign immunity. This derives from an ancient English principle that “the monarch can do no wrong.” That’s not how it’s interpreted today, but it does allow states and the federal government some protection from tort lawsuits under certain circumstances.
Federal law (and several states) has enacted the Tort Claims Act, which permits an individual to sue a state or federal government if the person was harmed because of actions by an employee or agency who causes an injury while performing duties within the scope of their employment.
In many cases, this applies to accidental injuries — like a car accident with a police or government vehicle, a slip and fall injury on public property, or an injury caused by a first responder who works for a county medical unit.
This immunity might also apply to a personal injury that results from excessive force by a police officer.
If evidence proves that the injury is the direct result of a police officer’s excessive force, they are likely not protected by governmental (“qualified”) immunity. That means you could file a lawsuit against the police department and the officer, personally.
But if there are intervening factors, like the action of another person or your own actions, you’re less likely to have a case that overrides immunity.
Personal injury damages against police
If you were injured by a police officer’s misconduct, you might be able to claim damages from the department. These damages could include:
- Medical expenses for doctor or hospital visits, assistive devices, diagnostics, therapies, or other treatments related to the injury
- Recovered costs for lost wages if you missed time from work
- Emotional pain and suffering
- Punitive damages if the behavior was malicious or with reckless disregard for your well-being
How to prove negligence by a police officer
The standard for negligence against a police officer is the same as it would be against any other person, company, or agency.
You need to prove negligence by showing that the facts meet each of these elements:
- The officer owed you a duty of care. The officer almost always owes a duty of care because it’s their job to protect you from harm. The officer is obligated to respect your civil rights and avoid more than a reasonable amount of force.
- The officer breached their duty of care. A breach can be actions other than excessive force; it could be negligent failure to act, also. It could also be making an arrest without reasonable cause.
- The breach caused your injury.
- Your injury cost money.
How to sue a police officer or department
Each state has its own rules for how to file a lawsuit against a government agency or employee. Bear in mind that if you were subject to excessive force by a police officer, there might be both civil and criminal legal actions.
As a private citizen, you can’t charge a police officer (or anyone) with a crime — only law enforcement and prosecutors can do that. If an officer is charged with a crime based on your interactions with them, you might be called as a witness or asked to make a statement as evidence.
But it’s your decision whether or not to file a civil claim.
If you are considering a lawsuit, find out the statute of limitations for suing a government agency in your state. A statute of limitations is the amount of time you have to file a claim, and sometimes it’s different for a government than if you were suing a person or company.
Regardless, you’ll want the right attorney to handle your lawsuit. It won’t be easy, but many lawsuits against police officers or departments are able to reach a settlement because the department doesn’t want the negative publicity surrounding a trial.
The Enjuris law firm directory is one place to start looking for a lawyer in your state who can handle your case.