Mississippi City Seeks Split of Damages in Police Chase

May 11, 2010

For the fourth time in the last year, a Hinds County, Mississippi circuit judge has ruled against the city of Jackson in cases involving a police chase.

The latest ruling comes from a lawsuit filed by a former Richland police officer over injuries he suffered in 2004 when a car being chased by Jackson police struck his personal vehicle.

Senior Judge Swan Yerger, in an opinion filed Friday, awarded $375,000 to Basil Thornton, 44, who said he was forced to resign from the Richland Police Department, where he had been a patrol sergeant, because of the resulting injuries. The injuries included a fractured vertebra, a broken foot, ankle trauma, a concussion, lacerated facial muscles and other cuts that left extensive scarring on his face.

But the city’s delegal department is asking the judge to split the damages among two other parties involved in the crash.

According to the lawsuit, teenager Isaiah Robertson was driving a car believed stolen when the Dec. 15, 2004, crash occurred. The chase occurred about 8:30 a.m. on a school day, Yerger said in his opinion. It went past a church day care, a Head Start facility, Tougaloo College’s main entrance, residential neighborhoods, through a private yard and against traffic control devices, Yerger said.

The chase ultimately resulted in a crash, as the suspect tried to elude police.

“The court finds, from a preponderance of the evidence, that the proximate cause of the subject accident and the plaintiff’s injuries, … resulted from the aforesaid reckless conduct of the Jackson Police Department officers,” Yerger wrote.

Yerger found the “continued pursuit of the suspected driver, without notification of any JPD supervisor, through red traffic lights, in excess of the speed limit, evinced the officers’ deliberate disregard of the unreasonable risk involved.”

City Attorney Pieter Teeuwissen said his office filed a motion Friday, asking Yerger to “follow his statutory obligation and apportion the liability to the two other parties.”

Those parties are Robertson and another driver, Keiwana Lewis, who pulled her car in front of Robertson’s before he crashed into Thornton.

“It’s not fair to place all the liability on the city when evidence shows clearly at least those two parties bear responsibility, if not all of it,” Teeuwissen said. “The cause of the accident was the individual who would not yield to the police and Ms. Lewis, who was changing her CD, not paying attention and pulled in front of that individual.”

Last year, Yerger ruled at least twice against the city in other cases involving police cases.

In September, Yerger ruled a Jackson police officer acted with “reckless disregard” during a seven-mile pursuit of a fleeing motorist who crashed into the vehicle of WLBT-Channel 3 meteorologist Eric Law and his wife, Kristina. The Laws were awarded the maximum $500,000 in damages.

In April 2009, Yerger found the city liable for a crash involving then-Jackson police officer Jeffery Middleton.

Yerger ruled Middleton showed “reckless disregard” for the safety of others when in 2005 he ran a traffic light in his speeding patrol car and crashed into the vehicle of Desmonde Harris, killing him.

Harris’ estate also was awarded the maximum $500,000 that can be assessed against a government entity under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act.

Earlier this year, another Hinds County Circuit judge ruled against the city in a case where two women were injured and a third killed in an accident caused by a police chase in 2001.

Judge Winston Kidd awarded $700,000 in damages in the lawsuit filed on behalf of the deceased woman’s heirs and the two injured women.

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