Judge grants summary judgment for police officers sued over man's injuries after vehicle pursuit

Jon Campisi Nov. 16, 2011, 8:36am

A federal judge in Philadelphia has granted summary judgment to two suburban Pennsylvania police officers who were named as defendants in a civil suit brought by a man who claims he became paralyzed after the vehicle in which he was riding as a passenger collided with a car being driven by a suspected drunk driver.

The police officer defendants had been chasing the allegedly intoxicated motorist at the time of the accident, which caused the plaintiff in the civil suit, Steven Jewell, to suffer physical trauma, including spinal cord injuries.

Jewell had filed his complaint Oct. 28, 2009, against Ridley Township and the police officers involved in the April 29, 2009, incident.

Ridley Township is located in Delaware County, Pa., just outside of Philadelphia.

The township responded by filing a motion for partial dismissal of the complaint, arguing that Jewell failed to state a viable due process claim against the municipality.

That motion was denied in October of last year.

Jewell then filed an amended complaint, which named Ridley Township officers Gerald Scanlan and Michael Bongiorno as two of the defendants who were named only as John Does in the original complaint. Jewell asserted claims of negligence against the two officers, arguing that their decision to engage in a vehicle pursuit with the drunk driver, identified as Robert M. Smith, Jr., led to the plaintiff’s injuries.

Smith, who has since been sent to jail for his criminal violations, was also named as a defendant in the civil suit.

On July 26 of this year, the defendant officers filed a motion for summary judgment, which was granted by the court on Nov. 9, and certified in the Nov. 14 memorandum by Judge R. Barclay Surrick, a jurist with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

In the order, Surrick wrote: “We are not unsympathetic to the tragic injuries suffered by Plaintiff. However, when viewing the record in a light most favorable to him, and drawing all inferences in his favor, we cannot conclude as a matter of law that a reasonable juror would find Ridley Township or its police officers liable, either in tort or under the Constitution, for the unfortunate accident that occurred on April 29, 2009.”

The ruling states that the emergency lights and sirens of the officers’ vehicles had been activated during the vehicle pursuit, proving that the officers were not careless in carrying out their pursuit of Smith.

Furthermore, Smith had earlier testified that he became unconscious prior to noticing the emergency lights on the cop cars, meaning he was unaware of the officers’ actions during the course of their pursuit.

“In any event, there are no facts here that suggest that Bongiorno and Scanlan’s conduct was a substantial factor in causing the accident,” the ruling states. “Because the causal connection is too remote, the issue of proximate causation is not appropriate for a jury and rather becomes a question of law. Moreover, based on this record, we are satisfied that Bongiorno and Scanlan did not breach any duty owed to Plaintiff.”

The judge also ruled that while the police pursuit of Smith occurred at night and on residential streets, it could not be concluded that the officers were negligent because there weren’t other cars on the road during the bulk of the pursuit.

Through his lawsuit, Jewell had attempted to show that the officers’ lack of adequate training on police vehicle pursuits was the “moving force” behind his injuries.

The judge ruled, however, that, “neither Plaintiff nor his expert has identified what different training Ridley Township should have provided to its officers that might have prevented the accident. Plaintiff therefore falls short of establishing a [section 1983] violation based on failure to train.”

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