Alaska Police Officer’s Distracted Driving Trial Begins

June 17, 2013

A man whose truck was T-boned in a collision with an Anchorage, Alaska, police officer running a red light testified Wednesday that the crash left him with lasting injuries.

Melvin Rush testified Wednesday in the opening of the civil trial in his lawsuit against the municipality of Anchorage. The Army pilot, a veteran of three tours in Iraq, is seeking $500,000 in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages for the accident three years ago.

The city has paid Rush’s medical and truck repair bills, according to documents filed in the case. The Anchorage Daily News reports assistant municipal attorney Sam Severin acknowledged Rush is owed money but that the city disputes punitive damages.

“We’re not denying that damages should be paid. Punitive damages should not be paid,” Severin said. “It wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t reckless.”

Rush on July 15, 2010, was driving his month-old pickup toward work through an intersection on Boniface Parkway when he saw something coming toward him, he said.

“I see a squad car coming at me. The first thing that goes through my mind is there are no lights on it, or I would’ve seen it,” Rush said. “All I thought was … ‘this is going to hurt.’ Everything just slowed down. It was like the inside of my truck exploded. … I could literally see droplets of coffee floating around me.”

A patrol car driven by 11-year veteran officer Michael Wisel hit the pickup on the rear of the driver’s side and pushed it into a light pole.

Rush told responding medics he did not need to go to a hospital but changed his mind when his right forearm hurt. Doctors found bruising but no broken bones. Deep bruises appeared later on other parts of his body and he worried that he would not pass his pilot’s physical.

“I love my job. I want to do my job until I retire, not until somebody retires me,” he said.

The injuries prevented him from holding his young son for weeks after the wreck, Rush said.

Rush’s lawyer, Jim Valcarce, said Wisel has a history of bad driving and that he was looking at his computer screen when he drove through the red light. The police department issued Wisel a verbal warning after the crash but no ticket, Valcarce said.

In a video deposition, Wisel acknowledged three other incidents in which he ran a red light or stop sign, including at least one where his car left the roadway. None were considered serious or involved another vehicle. One other occurred when he looked down at his computer, Valcarce said.

In the video, Wisel said it can be difficult to multi-task while driving. An officer might have to review information sent by a dispatcher, he said.

“It’s impractical and impossible to do this job and not look down sometimes,” Wisel said.

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