7th Circuit reverses for deceased woman’s estate in fatal South Bend officer crash

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has reversed against a former South Bend police officer that struck and killed a motorist while plowing through a red light, concluding the deceased’s personal representative is entitled to proceed with her case.

The case began in 2018 after now-former South Bend police officer Justin Gorny responded to a non-emergency call at a South Bend “hot spot” where a speeding vehicle was seen, despite not being assigned to the call and five other officers already on their way there.

While driving to the scene, Gorny reached speeds of 78 miles per hour in a residential neighborhood and nearly 100 miles per hour at an intersection when he disregarded a red light, striking and killing Eric Flores’ as she drove through the green light.

Soraida Flores, personal representative of the Estate of Erica Flores, sued the City of South Bend and Gorny, alleging that he violated Flores’ substantive due process rights under the 14th Amendment and under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and that the city was liable under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658 (1978), for failing adequately to train its police officers.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, however, dismissed Flores’ case.

She successfully challenged the district court’s dismissal on appeal, with the 7th Circuit on Wednesday concluding that Flores’s allegations plausibly stated claims against both defendants. It therefore found she is entitled to proceed with her case.

First addressing her individual claim against Gorny, the 7th Circuit found opposite of the district court’s conclusion that Flores’s complaint failed to allege sufficient facts to permit the inference that Gorny subjectively knew of the danger he created and consciously disregarded it, similar to Hill v. Shobe, 93 F.3d 418, 421 (7th Cir. 1996).

“Here, Gorny’s reckless conduct, unjustified by any emergency or even an order to assist in a routine traffic stop that five officers had under control, allows the inference that he subjectively knew about the risk he created and consciously disregarded it. Unlike the minimally detailed complaint in Hill, which again was limited to an accusation of speeding, the complaint here paints a far more troubling picture,” Circuit Judge Diane Wood wrote for the 7th Circuit.

“The defendants counter that Gorny could not have known that he created an imminent risk of fatal injury if he had an obstructed view of oncoming traffic. But the law does not require perfect knowledge on his part: Criminal recklessness is enough, and driving blind through an intersection at 78 to 98 miles per hour could certainly be viewed by a jury as meeting that standard,” it wrote. “The law does not provide a shield against constitutional violations for state actors who consciously take extreme and obvious risks.”

The 7th Circuit next turned to Flores’ Monell claim against the City of South Bend for failing to train its police to refrain from reckless driving. Stressing that while it is still at the pleading stage, the appellate panel concluded that Flores’s complaint plausibly alleges that the city acted with deliberate indifference by failing to address the known recklessness of its police officers as a group and Gorny in particular.

“Driving with deliberate indifference to the consequences of one’s action — in effect, turning oneself into a speeding bullet — can reach the level of criminal recklessness before the worst happens. Flores’s allegations are enough to survive a motion to dismiss,” it wrote.

The 7th Circuit therefore reversed the district court’s dismissal of Flores’ section 1983 and failure-to-train claims in Soraida Flores v. City of South Bend, 20-1603, remanding for further proceedings.

Concurring in a separate opinion, Circuit Judge Michael B. Brennan addressed the majority’s discussion of the failure-to-train liability under Monell to order to remind future courts and litigants to “recall the intricacies of Monell jurisprudence” and to “not misread precedent in this area.”

The concurring judge pointed out that liability for failure to train under the single-incident theory remains “rare,” adding that while the majority stated at least one of its sister circuits has upheld Monell liability under a failure-to-train theory without any sign of disapproval from the Supreme Court, “This sentence, which is followed by citations to a number of decisions, could be overread to suggest that liability under this theory is widely endorsed.”

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