A man who was paralyzed during a high-speed chase in rural eastern Nebraska is entitled to the $1 million he was awarded in his lawsuit against Platte County, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.
The high court ruled that Brian Werner was an innocent third party in the car driven by an acquaintance, Joey Korth, who lost control and crashed while fleeing from a sheriff’s deputy in October 2008.
Werner, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown 50 feet from the car and left a paraplegic. The owner and suspected driver of the car, Joey Korth, was also severely injured. Korth was living in a nursing home in a semi-vegetative state when the lawsuit was filed in 2010.
Attorneys for Werner and the county did not immediately return messages left Friday.
In a 41-page opinion, the high court pointed to testimony from a volunteer firefighter who tended to Werner after the crash. The firefighter, Brian Rosno, testified that Werner had said Korth was “going way too fast” and that he had asked Korth to let him out of the car. The high court rejected the county’s argument that the testimony was inadmissible hearsay.
Werner, 33, of Humphrey, argued in his lawsuit that he was an innocent third party injured in the course of a police pursuit, and was entitled to damages. A Platte County judge agreed and awarded him $3 million, minus 5 percent for Werner’s own negligence for not wearing a seat belt. The judge then reduced the award to $1 million in accordance with Nebraska law, which caps damage claims against counties, municipalities and other political subdivisions at $1 million.
A lawyer for Platte County countered that the judge had wrongly labeled Warner as an innocent third party. The county’s appeal said Werner, who had been convicted three times for drunken driving, was drunk at the time of the crash and had been drinking alcohol in the car beforehand, and that officers found methamphetamine and drug pipes in his pockets.
According to the ruling, Werner was walking home from a bar in Humphrey when he saw Korth’s car. Korth had gotten into a fight with one of Werner’s friends the weekend before, and he asked Werner to get in the car so he could explain what happened.
The two headed west to the town of Lindsay, drinking beers and talking while Korth drove, and then turned back toward Humphrey, according to court records. A sheriff’s deputy clocked the car at 76 mph in a 60-mph zone, and signaled for Korth to stop.
Korth fled, reaching speeds of at least 110 mph before the road transitioned from a paved to gravel.
In a separate but concurring opinion, Justice William Cassel said Nebraska lawmakers may want to change the definition of “innocent third party” when they convene “to change the result in a future case.”