• Police Officer Didn’t Commit Willful Misconduct and He is Entitled to Indemnification by the City under PA Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, But It Does Not Absolve Him from Liability for Assault, Battery, False Imprisonment/Arrest Claims.
  • August 3, 2016 | Author: Paul G. Lees
  • Law Firm: Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin, P.C. - Allentown Office
  • Robert E. Peachey v. Angel Cruz, Common Pleas Court of Philadelphia County, First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, Civil Trial Division, 2016 Phila. Ct. Com. Pl. Lexis 149

    A Philadelphia police officer was sued in state court for assault, battery and false imprisonment arising out of his actions in striking and arresting the plaintiff during an encounter involving the plaintiff’s son. The plaintiff learned his son was being detained by police officers. When he ran up to the scene to inquire why, he was told by the defendant officer to “back up.” When he failed to do so, the officer physically grabbed the plaintiff and wrestled him to the ground. He was subsequently charged with aggravated assault, obstruction of administration of law, resisting arrest and reckless endangerment. The charges were dropped after successful completion of ARD by the plaintiff. He then brought suit against the defendant officer. A jury found the defendant officer liable for use of excessive force during the arrest and entered a verdict in favor of the plaintiff on his assault, battery and false imprisonment claims. Notwithstanding that finding, the jury also determined that the officer had not engaged in willful misconduct.

    On appeal, the defendant claimed that the jury’s finding that he did not commit “willful misconduct” should have resulted in a finding that he was not liable for plaintiff’s claims of assault, battery and false imprisonment/arrest under the Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act, 42 Pa. C.S. § 8541 et seq.

    The court rejected the defendant’s arguments and relied upon the Supreme Court’s decision in Renk v. City of Pittsburgh, 641 A.2d 289, 292 (Pa.1994), which rejected the notion that “willful misconduct” equates to an “intentional tort” in the context of a lawsuit based upon police conduct. The Renk court recognized that a police officer may be held liable for assault and battery when a jury determines that the force used in making an arrest is unnecessary or excessive, and for false imprisonment when a jury concludes that he did not have probable cause to make an arrest. It is conceivable that a jury could find a police officer liable for those torts under circumstances demonstrating that the officer did not intentionally use unnecessary and excessive force, or did not deliberately arrest a person knowing that he lacked probable cause to do so.

    Notwithstanding the finding of liability against the officers, the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act provides indemnification for employees of local agencies who are liable for civil damages caused by acts committed within the scope of their employment duties. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8548(a). Such indemnification includes reasonable attorney’s fees, costs and expenses incurred by the employee in the underlying action; but it is not absolute as it does not extend to acts that are judicially determined to be willful misconduct. 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 8550. In this case, the police officer was found to be entitled to indemnification for the payment of the judgment entered in a civil action as the jury determined that the officer did not subjectively intend to do something he knew was wrongful.