Local 12 Investigates: Police immunity
DAYTON, Ohio (WKRC) - If you cause a crash on the road, you have to pay for damages and injuries, but in Ohio and most other states, police officers are treated much differently.
Local 12's Duane Pohlman is investigating how far an Ohio law goes in granting immunity to police.
It's a law, that some lawyers claim, has gone too far.
The car was totaled and even though the officer was at fault, the city says it's immune from paying for damages.
Up the road, in Dayton, Local 12’s Duane Pohlman found an even more startling crash.
An officer there did not turn on his lights and siren, when his cruiser struck and severely injured a woman in a wheelchair.
The city of Dayton claimed it was immune from paying any of her big medical bills and when the case went to court the city won.
“I don't remember how i got to the hospital,” said Donna Seege.
Donna Seege can't recall the moment in 2011 when a Dayton Police cruiser hit her.
Donna, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, was trying to cross the street in a wheelchair at an intersection.
The cruiser crash tossed Donna in to the street. She was rushed to the hospital and treated for a long list of injuries.
“My daughter was scared,” said Donna.
It took three months for donna to begin to heal. She's never completely recovered.
“My legs. It's very hard for me to walk. It's very hard for me to stand. They hurt all the time,” said Donna.
Attorney Doug Brannon represented Donna and filed a lawsuit against the officer and the city of Dayton to compensate her for those injuries.
“She suffered over $250,000 in medical bills from that hit. She sustained permanent injuries for the rest of her life,” said Brannon.
The facts of the case, Brannon says, appeared to be on his client's side.
The Dayton officer stated he was going 40 miles per hour, which is the speed limit.
But, in an interview with a detective shortly after the collision, the officer admitted he was not looking ahead of him, but was "looking for criminal activity" to his left "for 4-5 seconds" before striking Donna in her wheelchair.
And, in a deposition, the Dayton police officer admits he was responding to a "non-emergency call."
“Did not have his lights engaged. He was on his way to an accident, the police officer was, where there were already three other officers on the scene… no injuries… there was no emergency,” said Brannon.
That's important, because the language of Ohio’s law states cities are granted immunity from damage and injury claims when an officer is "responding to an emergency call and the operation of the vehicle did not constitute willful or wanton misconduct."
In the previous case Local 12’s Duane Pohlman investigated last month, the Cincinnati Police officer was responding with lights and sirens when he lost control of his cruiser and slammed in to a parked car, totaling it.
“I get stuck with the bill,” said the car’s owner, Bobby Burgess.
In Dayton, the cruiser had no lights and no siren, and Donna says she had no warning.
“You know, if I thought he was on an emergency, I would appreciate that, but he didn't have one light on. He didn't have one emergency,” said Donna.
But, when Donna and her attorney went to court, they lost.
“Our trial judge said that immunity applies,” said Brannon.
Brannon disagreed with the ruling and appealed, but the Ohio Court of Appeals (2nd District) sided with the city of Dayton, stating: “An emergency call means any call to duty.”
“Our court of appeals said that immunity applies,” said Brannon.
When Brannon tried to take the case to Ohio’s highest court…
“Our Ohio Supreme Court wouldn't even hear the appeal,” said Brannon. “If they won't hear a case like Donna Seege's, it's hard to believe they'd hear any case at all or even care enough to hear it.”
Which leaves Brannon with one conclusion when it comes to crashes involving police cruisers:
“It's my opinion that virtually these cases can no longer be won,” said Brannon. “This is the reality of what we're living in right now and it's not right and it's not fair and it needs to change.”
Local 12’s Duane Pohlman requested an interview with the police officer and Dayton’s mayor to discuss this case,
Instead the city sent a short email stating: "We are going to decline to comment at this time."
Since the crash, Donna has been trying to weave her life back together, but she worries about others who have an unexpected run-in with police.
Ironically, even though the city of Dayton avoided paying for Donna's medical expenses, taxpayers still got the bill.
Medicaid had to pay the entire amount: $258,000.
And, one more point, if you think you're comprehensive insurance policy will compensate you when the cities don't, you should probably think again.
According to Brannon, increasingly insurers are denying claims and saying they won't cover damages when the other party is at fault.
How many of these police crashes are we talking about? That's tough to say. Local 12 and Duane Pohlman are trying to get numbers, but the cities say they don't keep a list of these kinds of cases.
Attorney Brannon says he believes there are thousands of police crashes in Ohio, with very few cities paying any claims.