In 2018, a general callout for assistance regarding a rollover wreck with unknown injuries was placed around 4:09 p.m. near the interchange of Highway 7 North and Sisk Avenue in Oxford, Mississippi. At the time of the callout, Officer Matthew Brown was parked in a patrol car on the shoulder of Highway 314, approximately two and a half miles from the scene of the accident. After hearing the call for assistance, Officer Brown proceeded to the scene of the wreck.
Dash camera video introduced at trial documented the speeds at which Officer Brown was traveling throughout his response. The video shows that Officer Brown reduced his speed when approaching intersections and other drivers and that his patrol car’s lights and sirens were activated throughout the time he traveled to the wreck. Officer Brown’s top speed traveling to the wreck was ninety-two miles per hour.
Dispatch records indicated that two officers arrived at the rollover scene by 4:11 p.m. The parties stipulated, however, that no termination notice was ever issued by dispatch or a supervising officer. When Officer Brown approached the intersection of Molly Barr Road and North Lamar Boulevard, he slowed his speed to approximately fifty miles per hour. The speed limit at that intersection is forty miles per hour. Officer Brown entered the intersection against a red light, and collided with the right rear side of Patricia Phillips’s vehicle. Phillips had a green light. Officer Brown was traveling forty-six miles per hour at the time of impact. Phillips and her minor child, Addison Phillips, were taken to the emergency room where they were treated for injuries. They were discharged the same day.
In Officer Brown’s own written report, he acknowledged that he was still going at a high rate of speed and did not slow down enough to fully clear the intersection. Lieutenant Alex Stratton, Officer Brown’s supervisor, filed an accident report in which he stated that Officer Brown was not being vigilant enough when proceeding through the red light and that Officer Brown was informed that he was only to respond to call code if it is 100% necessary and must yield to right of way when clearing intersections.
Officer Brown was also cited by the City of Oxford in a disciplinary report that indicated he had committed a safety violation and an Oxford Police Department (OPD) policy violation. As a result, Officer Brown was suspended for three shifts, was placed on six months of probation, and was required to complete remedial emergency driving training.
Phillips filed a civil action on behalf of herself and her minor child against the City of Oxford, Mississippi, to recover for injuries suffered in the collision. After a bench trial, the Lafayette County Circuit Court found that Officer Brown did not act with reckless disregard in response to the emergency and determined that the City of Oxford was entitled to police-protection immunity under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (MTCA). MCOA reversed but MSC has now reversed MCOA and agrees with trial court that officer did not act in reckless disregard.
We have recognized that the purpose of Mississippi Code Section 11-46-9 (MTCA) is to protect law enforcement personnel from lawsuits arising out of the performance of their duties in law enforcement, with respect to the alleged victim. By requiring a finding of reckless disregard of the safety and well-being of others, the Legislature set an extremely high bar for plaintiffs seeking to recover against a city for a police officer’s conduct while engaged in the performance of his or her duties.
We have held that reckless disregard under Section 11-46-9(1)(c) is a higher standard than gross negligence and embraces willful and wanton conduct which requires knowingly or intentionally doing a thing or wrongful act. Reckless disregard usually is accompanied by a conscious indifference to consequences, amounting almost to a willingness that harm should follow.
MCOA correctly observed that, while policy violations and traffic- based statutory violations can provide strong support that an officer was indeed reckless, they do not constitute reckless disregard per se.
In the present matter, Officer Brown was acting within the course and scope of his employment. The trial judge, in his findings of facts and conclusions of law, determined the following:
1. Officer Brown was responding to a rollover wreck with unknown injuries with his lights, siren, and air horn activated throughout the response, including as he approached and entered the subject intersection;
2. Dash camera video shows motorists responding to these warnings by pulling over to the shoulder of the road;
3. Officer Brown was unaware if any officers were yet on scene;
4. Officer Brown slowed his speed while approaching intersections, including the subject intersection;
5. Officer Brown believed he had visually cleared the intersection before he entered;
6. Officer Brown collided with Phillips at approximately six miles per hour over the speed limit; and
7. The accident occurred in daylight, in a commercial area, with no pedestrians present.
In McKay, a sheriff’s deputy responded to an accident with his lights and eventually his siren despite the fact that dispatch did not specifically request that the deputy respond. The deputy ultimately crashed into a pickup truck at an intersection while traveling approximately ten miles per hour over the posted speed limit immediately before the collision. MCOA upheld the trial court’s finding of no reckless disregard, stating that a reasonable fact-finder could find that Deputy Miller was not deliberately or consciously indifferent to any high probability of harm, and that Miller exercised at least some care.
In Maldonado, an officer entered a known, dangerous intersection after he had stopped and looked both ways. The officer hit an approaching car after he did not see it, admittedly due to the fact the officer’s view on his right side was partially blocked. MSC held that, although Officer Maldonado may have been negligent, his actions do not rise to the level of reckless disregard.
In Presley, an officer was responding to another officer’s dispatch call regarding a man lying in the street, unresponsive and bleeding. In the course of her response, the officer entered a dangerous intersection against a red light with her lights and sirens activated, and a partially obstructed view. The officer struck an oncoming vehicle that also did not see her or hear her coming. MSC held that the officer exercised some measure of safety precaution by employing her blue lights and siren, activating her buzzer to alert traffic while she was crossing the lanes, and crossing one lane at a time. Such actions hardly can be characterized as reckless and indifferent to the safety of others.
The trial judge concluded that much like the cases noted above, there is a demonstrable absence of reckless disregard on the part of Officer Brown. He added that while Officer Brown’s actions could be considered negligent and possibly even more than negligence Officer Brown’s actions exhibited some care; they did not exhibit a lack of care.
MCOA disagreed, finding the instant case more closely resembled the facts in City of Jackson v. Brister, 838 So. 2d 274 (2003), and Maye.
In Brister, a police pursuit case, police officers failed to follow the police department’s general order to only pursue known felons and instead engaged in a high-speed chase in a heavily populated area through residential areas including apartment complexes, single-family housing and condominiums, a park, and even past an elementary school, traveling in excess of twenty miles per hour over the speed limit. The chase lasted less than sixty seconds before the suspect’s vehicle crashed into another vehicle on the road, resulting in the passenger’s death. The police officers testified that the pursuit had been terminated, but they continued to follow the suspect to obtain her license plate, without knowing whether the suspect had committed a misdemeanor or a felony. MSC held that the trial court did not err by finding the City liable, finding overwhelming evidence exists that the officers acted in reckless disregard to the general safety of the public.
In Maye, we held a deputy sheriff’s actions amounted to reckless disregard when he blindly backed out of a parking space and up an incline, which was also the entrance of a parking lot. The officer collided with a vehicle that had turned off the road onto the incline. The officer testified that, although he had checked his mirrors, he could not see the road from the parking lot because the jail was at a lower elevation than the road. When the other motorist saw the deputy backing toward her car, the deputy was forty feet away. The motorist braked and honked the horn, but the deputy continued backing and collided with her car. From the severity of the damage to the car and injuries to the passenger, it was apparent the deputy was going much too fast to be backing up the entrance to the parking lot when he could not see what was behind him. Based on the evidence, we held the deputy had acted with conscious indifference by backing out of the driveway at a high rate of speed when he could not see what was behind him.
The facts of Brister and Maye are distinguishable from the case at hand, as they evince not only some appreciation of the unreasonable risk involved, but also a deliberate disregard of that risk and the high probability of the harm involved. In the instant case, Officer Brown exercised some measure of safety precaution by activating his lights and sirens throughout his response, activating his horn for additional warning at intersections, and slowing as he approached intersections. Dash camera footage shows other motorists pulled over as Officer Brown approached them, proving he was observed as a result of his lights and sirens. Such actions cannot be characterized as reckless and indifferent to the safety of others. Although Officer Brown may have been negligent, his actions do not evince an entire abandonment of any care.
Because the trial judge’s finding is supported by substantial evidence, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals and reinstate and affirm the judgment of the circuit court.