Court rules family can sue Weber deputy for chase death, not county

Aug 8 2013 - 6:13am

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SALT LAKE CITY -- In a ruling likely to change how police look at high-speed chases, the Utah Supreme Court has ruled a family whose son died during a chase can sue the officer, but not his employer.

The family of Wayne Torrie claims the Petersboro teen was distraught and suicidal on March 23, 2010, after being teased in school. After an argument at the family home in Cache County, he drove off in the family's Chevy Suburban, threatening to commit suicide by crashing if he spotted any police officers, reads the court's decision.

He texted his mother as he drove, which she relayed to emergency dispatchers. That information was forwarded to the Weber County Sheriff's Office when Torrie passed into Weber County.

Deputy Denton Harper spotted Torrie's Suburban entering Weber at speeds 40 and 50 mph above the speed limit. Evidence showed the Suburban reached speeds of up to 99 mph, repeatedly crossing the double-yellow line of the two-lane road to pass vehicles in what proved to be a very brief chase.

"After less than a minute with Deputy Harper in pursuit, Wayne's vehicle abruptly left the road and rolled several times in a neighboring field," the justices wrote. "Wayne was ejected from the vehicle during the crash and subsequently died from his injuries."

In their ruling Tuesday, the high court overturned 2nd District Judge Robert Dale's dismissal of the Torries' lawsuit. Dale, who heard the case in Layton, had agreed with the arguments of Weber County's lawyers that "no legal duty" or "standard of care" was owed to fleeing suspects.

But the high court found that while statutory language exempts emergency vehicle operators from general traffic laws, it still imposes a standard of care, or duty, to fleeing suspects.

The court also found the suit only applied to the deputy, and not Weber County, in sending it back to the district court for further proceedings.

The case had been moved to Davis County to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest. Harper has worked in the 2nd District Courthouse in O

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