As a Missouri car accident attorney, I was interested in a recent story in the Kansas City Star about a wrongful death lawsuit resulting from a police chase that killed an innocent bystander. The parents of Christopher Cooper, 17, settled their lawsuit against the Independence (MO) Police Department and Medevac MidAmerica Inc., an emergency response provider, for $275,000. This is an important case because, as I discussed last week, it emphasizes that police officers need to exercise care when they respond to emergencies, lest they cause danger and damage rather than protecting the public from it.
In the accident that led to the Independence wrongful death lawsuit, an Independence police officer was pursuing a driver who was fleeing the scene of a collision with another car. Christopher Cooper was crossing the street on a bicycle when he was struck by that driver, Wilfredo J. Pujols Jr. of Independence. Pujols is a cousin to St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols. He pleaded guilty in December 2008 to second-degree murder, resisting arrest and two counts of leaving the scene of an accident, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. At the sentencing, Jackson County Circuit Judge Jack Grate described Pujols’s actions as “horrific,” and acknowledged the Cooper family’s “incalculable” pain. But to the Coopers, the criminal case against Pujols did not resolve the problem of what appeared to be a pattern of police chases in Independence that risked public safety. In the fall of 2007, there were three deaths resulting from police chases in Independence within a ten-day period. Two of those killed were the people who were fleeing from the police, and the third was Christopher.
In their wrongful death lawsuit, Christopher’s parents alleged that the Independence police shared the blame for Christopher Cooper’s death because they had not followed the city’s pursuit policy. They also alleged that, along with other emergency personnel, police failed to properly assess his injuries and made demeaning remarks at the scene of the accident. As a St. Louis car wreck lawyer, I could see the demeaning remarks that these emergency workers allegedly made as evidence that they weren’t taking the situation very seriously, even though a young man’s life was at stake, and ultimately was lost. The police could have chosen to deal with Pujols differently. Rather than chasing him when he fled from the scene of the first accident he caused, they could have alerted other officers to catch up him further down the road, or arrested him at his house later on. Instead, they chose what had already been shown, within the last few days, to be a dangerous course.