State Supreme Court will revisit police collision case
Published 4:00 pm Wednesday, March 15, 2023
By Gregory Burnett
The Mississippi Supreme Court recently agreed to review the appeal of Patricia Phillips and her daughter Addison Phillips.
Patricia Phillips filed a civil action against the city of Oxford after she and her daughter were struck by a vehicle driven by Oxford Police Officer Matthew Brown, who was en route to an emergency call.
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The Lafayette County Circuit Court found that Brown did not act with reckless disregard in response to the emergency and determined that Oxford was entitled to “police-protection immunity” under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (MTCA).
Phillips appealed, asserting that the trial court erred by finding that Brown did not act in reckless disregard for the safety of others, and asked that the state’s high court determine whether a violation of a statute that governs emergency responders’ driving should constitute reckless disregard as a matter of law.
Upon review, the Court of Appeals of Mississippi asserted that they disagreed with the Lafayette County Circuit Court’s finding that Officer Brown’s conduct failed to rise to the level of reckless disregard.
Agreeing with Phillips’ appeal, they found that Officer Brown was driving recklessly when the plaintiff was struck. The case was reversed and remanded for determination of damages.
In September 2018, Brown responded to a call requesting assistance with a single-vehicle rollover wreck with unknown injuries. Both parties agreed that Brown was acting within the course and scope of his position as a police officer for the city of Oxford. Brown’s route to the emergency call took him through heavily residential areas that included apartment buildings and adjoining neighborhoods. The speed limit on these roads varied from 30 to 45 miles per hour.
When Brown approached the third intersection – the scene of the accident – at a speed of 58 miles per hour, he slowed to 45 miles per hour. The dash camera recorded his speed at 46 miles per hour when he collided with Phillips’ vehicle, six miles above the posted speed limit of 40 miles per hour.
Video from the side-facing camera in Brown’s patrol car shows Phillips’ car spin almost 360 degrees after being hit and coming to a rest facing nearly the same direction it was originally traveling. Phillips and her child were taken to the hospital, where they both were treated for their injuries. They were discharged the same day with instructions to rest and follow up with their general practitioners.
Phillips filed an accident report, which stated that “[Officer Brown] was not being vigilant while proceeding through the red light. And 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.” Phillip’s report also stated that he “did not make sure the intersection was clear before proceeding, and that “Brown’s actions put himself and the public at risk.”
In October 2019, Phillips filed a complaint to recover for injuries from the collision. Both parties filed motions for summary judgment, which were denied. At the trial, Phillips alleged that Brown violated Mississippi Code Annotated section 63-3-3155 and that by violating this statute, Officer Brown was automatically guilty of reckless driving.
In determining that Officer Brown’s driving was covered under “police-protection immunity”, the lower court stated that the use of his lights and sirens, and his attempt to slow when reaching the intersection proved that Officer Brown was not driving with a reckless disregard for the public’s safety.
However, the Mississippi Court of Appeals found differently when the case was reviewed. The statute cited for this case states that an emergency responder must “slow down as necessary for safety [and] proceed cautiously past such red or stop sign or signal.”
Based on this language, The Mississippi Court of Appeals stated that Officer Brown proceeded with his emergency response with “conscious indifference” to the safety of those on the road around him and that merely turning on his lights and sirens did not clear him of reckless driving.
The court of appeals did not agree with Phillips’ argument that by violating this statute Officer
Brown was categorically responsible for reckless driving. Instead, it was stated that each case must be reviewed under the totality of the circumstances. In these circumstances, Brown was guilty of reckless disregard of the public’s safety.
The mere act of turning on lights and sirens does not give an emergency responder a free pass to engage in reckless driving, such as failing to look both ways before crossing an intersection.
Based on these findings, the Mississippi Court of Appeals sent this case back to the lower court to have the amount of damages determined for Phillips and her daughter.
After this decision was made, a new appeal was filed by the City of Oxford. In their petition, the City of Oxford asked that the case be sent to the Supreme Court of Mississippi for review. This petition was granted in February 2023 and the case will be reviewed again by the highest court of the state.