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Liability complications under the Illinois Tort Immunity Act

Cook County police officers are trained to multi-task while driving patrol cars. Officers learn to communicate with dispatchers and operate on-board computers while driving, sometimes at very high speeds.

Distractions affect officers, like other drivers. A few seconds of failing to pay attention to the road can cause an auto accident. Sometimes the public pays the price for a squad car crash during a criminal pursuit or in response to an emergency.

Two Illinois teens died in 2007, when the car they occupied was struck by a police car moving at more than 120 mph. The violent car collision was caused by distracted driving, not because the officer was engaged in police work but because he was on a cellphone talking to his girlfriend.

Investigators learned the officer picked up a call from the girlfriend, while speeding toward a reported crash. Dispatchers unsuccessfully tried to let the officer know the emergency scene was secured. The dispatcher's message apparently went unnoticed because the officer was on the phone and using the dashboard computer's email.

Cellphone records confirmed the officer's private conversation coincided with the time of the fatality.

A plea deal for aggravated reckless driving and reckless homicide charges allowed the officer to avoid prison. He received 10-years' probation, lost driving privileges and moved out of state. The former officer has been denied several requests to have his driver's license returned.

Government agencies, like police departments and their public service employees, have liability protection that civilians do not. Illinois's sovereign immunity laws were replaced by the Tort Immunity Act, which still limits damages paid by the public funds but makes exceptions for "willful and wanton" government employee conduct.

The provisions of the Tort Immunity Act are complicated. A plaintiff trying to build a case against the state government or one of its entities, without the advice of a liability attorney, could easily misinterpret the law's nuances.

Source: The Southern, "Mother recounts loss of daughters" Dustin Duncan, Dec. 17, 2013

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