LINCOLN — Change could be coming for a Nebraska law passed 35 years ago to rein in police pursuits.

State lawmakers voted 34-6 Wednesday to advance legislation that would make it more difficult for some passengers involved in chases to collect high-dollar payouts from local governments.

Sen. Dan Watermeier of Syracuse sponsored Legislative Bill 188 to change the legal definition of innocent third parties when it comes to high-speed police chases. The bill would prevent passengers who are wanted for arrest or who commit crimes during the chase from automatically recovering damages for their injuries.

Watermeier told his colleagues he knew of three cases in the past 10 years in which liability payments went to individuals who were “not truly innocent parties.”

“It’s a common-sense bill that will only affect a small number of cases,” Watermeier said. “But these cases have the potential to cost cities and counties… and it’s just not right.”

The bill overcame a six-hour filibuster from Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha, who sponsored the police-pursuit liability legislation in 1981. Chambers worked to pass the law because innocent bystanders and motorists were being killed or maimed too frequently in high-speed police pursuits.

Chambers made it clear Wednesday he will continue to oppose the bill when it comes up for the second round of debate.

“My job as the garbage man is to make sure it ends up where it belongs,” Chambers said.

Nebraska is the only state that imposes strict liability on governments for police chases. That means taxpayers pay for injuries to innocent third parties, even if the police officer involved was not negligent.

The bill would not repeal the liability law itself. Pedestrians or other motorists hurt as a result of a police pursuit would still be able to collect damages, which are capped at $1 million per individual and $5 million per incident against local governments. Potential damages against the state are unlimited.

Over the years, the courts have interpreted innocent third parties to include passengers who were engaged in illegal activity, as long as they were not encouraging the driver to flee from authorities.

The City of Omaha, which supports the bill, pays an average $600,000 annually to innocent third parties.

The bill would prevent injured passengers from claiming innocence if they are wanted for felony crimes or if they voluntarily get into a vehicle with a driver who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It also would deny payments to passengers who don’t try to convince the driver to end the chase.

Watermeier said he will try to amend the bill to strike some of the language Chambers finds objectionable. Chambers, however, said he will block those attempts because he finds the entire bill unacceptable.

Chambers argued there is no need for the bill because the courts do not automatically award damages to every person hurt as a result of a police pursuit. Judges have denied payments to passengers who have been shown to encourage the drivers to speed away from police.

Contact the writer: 402-473-9587, joe.duggan@owh.com

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