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Police Negligence

California State Law Claims for Police Negligence


In the wake of numerous cases of police misconduct, victims and their families often wonder about their legal options. Under California state law, one potential course of action is to pursue a negligence claim against an individual officer, especially in cases involving the negligent use of force. This guide will explain how these negligence claims work, how they differ from other legal remedies, and what you need to consider if you’re thinking about filing a lawsuit.

Negligence Claims against Police Officers

Under California state law, public employees, including police officers, are liable for injuries caused by their acts or omissions to the same extent as private persons, unless otherwise provided by law (Gov.Code, § 820; Hayes v. Cty. of San Diego, 57 Cal. 4th 622, 628–29, 305 P.3d 252, 255 (2013)). This means that a plaintiff can pursue a negligence claim against an individual officer under certain circumstances, such as negligent use of force against the plaintiff.

When a person is negligently killed, their close relatives and dependents can recover damages for their loss (Code Civ. Proc., § 377.60). These claims are governed by general principles of tort law, particularly the law of negligence.

Determining Negligence: The “Totality of Circumstances” Test

The Supreme Court of California, in Hayes v. County of San Diego, established that liability can arise from the tactical conduct and decisions made by law enforcement preceding the use of deadly force. If the tactical conduct and decisions leading up to the use of deadly force show that the use of deadly force was unreasonable, under the totality of circumstances, such liability can arise.

In evaluating whether an officer has acted reasonably, the court applies a “totality of the circumstances” test. This means that a court will consider the pre-shooting circumstances, which may show the use of force by an officer as unreasonable once understood in context—even if the use of force when isolated by itself would otherwise be reasonable.

Vicarious Liability: Employers Can Also Be Held Accountable

In addition to individual officers, their employers can also be held liable under a doctrine known as “vicarious liability”. If a jury finds that the officers were negligent, their employers are also considered responsible.

Key Case Precedents

In the seminal case of Grudt v. City of Los Angeles, a street-clothed officer—carrying a double-barreled shotgun—approached a car, possibly causing the driver to think that he was being robbed or attacked. The driver accelerated the car towards another street-clothed officer, and then both officers opened fire on the driver, killing him. The California Supreme Court held that the trial court should have allowed a negligence claim to go forward against the officers. This case set a precedent for considering pre-shooting conduct in negligence claims.

Statute of Limitations

When bringing a negligence claim, be advised that there are special statute of limitations rules and additional filing guidelines that must be followed under Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 335.1 (West). It is essential to consult with a qualified attorney who can guide you through this process.


Police-misconduct victims can bring negligence claims against officers, which allow them to assess the officer’s conduct leading up to the use of excessive force. In some circumstances, this approach can be more advantageous to the victim than a Fourth Amendment excessive-force claim, which only considers the reasonableness of the use of force at the moment the force was used. In contrast, a negligence claim allows a jury to hold an officer liable for conduct preceding even a lawful use of force.