Nebraska High Court to Hear Police Chase Suit Appeal

By MARGERY A. BECK | September 28, 2012

The Nebraska Supreme Court will decide whether a man injured in the crash of a car being chased by Platte County sheriff’s deputies is entitled to $1 million from the county.

Brian Werner sued Platte County in 2010, 14 months after a car he was in fled from a Platte County sheriff’s deputy, reaching speeds of 110 mph, before unexpectedly traveling onto a gravel road and flipping end-over-end.

Werner, who was not wearing a seat belt, 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 in the crash and remains hospitalized in an unresponsive state, according to court records.

Werner, 33, of Humphrey, argued in his lawsuit that under state law, 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 by 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.

Platte County appealed, arguing the lower court wrongly labeled Werner as an innocent third party. The county’s appeal says 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.

“Werner’s behavior of carrying controlled substances made him subject to arrest in the time frame of the pursuit, and he was thereafter prosecuted and convicted of a criminal offense associated with his actions,” the county’s attorney, Vincent Valentino, wrote in his brief before the state’s high court. “He is therefore a wrongdoer, whose actions during the time frame of the pursuit are entirely inconsistent with any reasonable construction of the word ‘innocent.”‘

Werner’s attorney, William Lamson Jr. of Omaha, argues in his brief that the $1 million award should be affirmed, saying Werner proved he was an innocent victim who repeatedly asked to be let out of the fleeing car before the crash.

Lamson called the county’s challenge a desperate act that flies “in the face of a mountain of evidence proving Korth to be the driver of the fleeing vehicle, as well as Werner’s direct testimony that he never promoted, provoked or persuaded Korth in his flight.”

Neither attorney returned messages left Wednesday seeking comment.

The Nebraska Supreme Court will hear arguments on Oct. 10.

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