Local 12 Investigates: How to protect yourself from police immunity

How to protect yourself from police immunity (WKRC)

CINCINNATI (WKRC) - A Local 12 investigation is front and center in the Ohio legislature.

Spurred by findings, many lawmakers are backing a new bill that would force cities to pay for damages when police and other emergency vehicles crash.

Local 12 Investigative Reporter Duane Pohlman exposed how police cruisers are crashing into cars and leaving people stuck with the bill and that investigation could lead to a new law.

The Local 12 reports are now part of the official record and the Local 12 investigation is now guiding lawmakers as they consider a new bill to tighten police immunity.

And that's not all, the young man in the reports whose car was destroyed by a Cincinnati Police cruiser, testified at the statehouse, telling legislators it's time to end Ohio’s "unfair law."

Bobby Burgess stepped up and agreed to testify at the Ohio statehouse.

“My first hope would be that the law gets changed, so what happened to me won't happen to anybody else,” said Bobby.

A Cincinnati Police cruiser, that was responding to a call two years ago in Northside, lost control in a curve and careened in to the 2009 Honda Civic bobby just bought nine days before the crash. Bobby's new car was totaled.

But, just as jolting as the crash, the City of Cincinnati refused to pay the $12,000 in damages, writing that an Ohio law says that it's "immune from liability."

“State law allowed Cincinnati to completely avoid paying out anything,” said Bobby.

Bobby described to state representatives seated on the house civil justice committee that his disappointment and financial hardship caused by that cruiser crash that wasn't his fault.

“It was only when Local 12 Investigative Reporter Duane Pohlman heard my story that I began to get any kind of traction,” said Bobby.

Bobby's case was far from alone. Donna Seege was in her wheelchair in a crosswalk when a Dayton Police cruiser struck her.

Dayton refused to pay and when her case went through the courts, Ohio's immunity law prevailed.

Seege was saddled with more than $250,000 in medical bills.

“The policeman hit me,” said Donna.

“It was phenomenal that you, Mr. Pohlman, on Channel 12 investigates had already done the leg work for me,” said Rep. Ingram.

Representative Catherine Ingram, a Democrat from Cincinnati, authored the bill to change Ohio’s immunity law, crossing out most of the blanket protections now granted to Ohio cities and forcing cities to pay for damages when there was no true emergency at the time of a crash.

Already, Ingram’s bill is getting bi-partisan support.

The Ohio association for Justice, a powerful statewide association of attorneys, supports the bill as well.

“No one should get blanket immunity; we believe in our society. People ought to be accountable for their actions,” said John van Doorn of the OAJ.

Even the chairman of that committee, a Republican, is in favor of changing Ohio’s immunity law.

“Whether it's a police vehicle or another vehicle and it's not a life threatening emergency and they just driving down the street and they run in to your car, i think most people would say they should pay for the damages,” said Jim Butler, a Republican Rep of House District 4.

What began as an investigative tip led Bobby on a remarkable trip to the center of Ohio government?

“I definitely didn't expect this,” said Bobby.

And after years of frustration, the voice of the 33-year-old was finally heard.

“Until I reached out to you, nothing had happened. No one was listening,” said Bobby.

There are a lot of steps before the bill becomes law and most say there "will" be changes along the way.

But so far, there hasn't been any public opposition to it.

Would the new bill end "all" protections for police and other emergency vehicles when they crash? No. If there's a true emergency and the police car crashes, say, during a chase, the city would still not be required to pay.

But there is still a bit of confusion about where to draw that line.

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