The parents of a teenager who died during a 2010 police pursuit can sue the Weber County deputy who was chasing their son, but not the county itself, the Utah Supreme Court ruled in what lawyers said Wednesday was a precedent-setting decision.
The ruling was made Tuesday in response to an appeal filed by the family of 16-year-old Wayne Torrie after a district judge dismissed the wrongful death lawsuit. The case now returns to a lower court.
The ruling marked the first time Utah’s highest court has addressed the legal rights of people fleeing in roadway pursuits, attorneys said.
Salt Lake City attorney Robert Sykes said the decision could change how authorities decide whether to initiate a pursuit because it says police officers must consider the risk not only to other motorists and pedestrians but also to the person fleeing.
Efforts to reach attorneys representing the Weber County Sheriff’s Office and defendant Deputy Denton Harper were unsuccessful.
Jim McConkie, the attorney for the Torrie family, called it a “great decision” that will change the way police chase suspects.
Sykes acknowledged that some people don’t think people who violate the law or trigger chases should be able to sue. But he said the ruling only opens the door for lawsuits when an officer was unreasonable in starting a chase.
The parents of Wayne Torrie claim that was the case with their son.
The chase occurred on March 23, 2010, after the teenager came home distraught from being teased in school in the small town of Petersboro in northern Utah.
He took the family’s SUV, threatening to commit suicide by crashing if he spotted any police officers, his family said.
His mother, Raeghn Torrie, called police to warn them that her son was suicidal and relayed her son’s threats, court documents show. She did not tell law enforcement not to search for her son.
A deputy spotted the teen and tried to get him to pull over at a stop light. The teen ignored the flashing lights and sped away, reaching 99 mph on a road with a speed limit of 40 mph with the deputy in pursuit, court records said.
Less than a minute into the chase, the SUV went off the road and rolled several times in a nearby field west of Ogden, the records show. The teen died the next day.
The Torrie family sued Weber County and Deputy Denton Harper, arguing dangerous high-speed chases should be used only for dangerous criminals.
McConkie said Wayne Torrie was driving around for an hour without violating any laws or speeding until the deputy tried to stop him. Deputies could have trailed him at a distance, notified another officer ahead or waited for him to get gas, McConkie said.
Attorneys for Weber County contended that Torrie caused his own death, and that there is no legal duty owed to fleeing suspects. A lower court judge agreed and threw out the case.
But the Utah Supreme Court sided with the family, saying officers cannot ignore the risk to the person fleeing when deciding whether to start a pursuit.
McConkie said he expects the case to go to trial.
Raeghn Torrie declined to comment Wednesday.
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