Negligence With A Badge
By Jason S. HayetI was working for a criminal-defense firm in Decatur, and our cases included a number of traffic citations, which are misdemeanors in Georgia. We were approached by a young man who had recently been involved in a severe collision with a DeKalb County Police Officer, and was issued the ticket, but felt he was not the cause of the wreck. We agreed.
Our client was a 20-year-old African American restaurant worker, and a graduate of nearby Cedar Grove High School. He was headed to work, driving through the intersection of Bouldercrest Rd. and I-285, when the officer abruptly turned in front of him without the right of way. Our client’s light was green, and the officer did not have his emergency lights on at the time. His patrol car was T-boned, totaling both vehicles, and multiple airbags deployed. The two spun off the road toward the guardrail on the I-285 overpass, and both drivers required extraction. What followed was some highly questionable police work at best, and downright crooked at worst.
As our client and the involved officer were tended by EMT’s, over a dozen DeKalb Police Officers arrived on the scene. The involved officer personally knew many of the ones arriving and our client watched them huddle up. A short time passed before one of the officers approached our client in the ambulance with a citation for failure to obey a traffic control device—they never even asked him about the incident.
The officer claimed that our client ran the red light, but he gave no indication that he had a green turn arrow. This would mean he had run a red light as well. Our client told us that there was no such red light, or even a yellow one. He was simply heading straight through a green light at the intersection. Based on the photographic evidence and the police report, and with the officer making no claims of any green arrow, it appeared to us that the officer had failed to yield while turning left, in violation of O.C.G.A. § 40-6-71.
Nevertheless, the accident put our client in the hospital, after which the officer wasted no time in suing him. The officer received two weeks paid leave and a new squad car upon his return, while our client lost his car, got strapped with more than $10,000 in medical bills, and couldn’t work for over a month. He also watched his rates with Allstate soar over a wreck he didn’t cause, and was facing a criminal charge for the ticket in the State Court of DeKalb County, which could carry up to a year.
We took the case, and first things first, we had to fight the ticket. When an attorney is involved in a traffic case, the State will often negotiate the sentence and keep points off the client’s license. When there are complicating factors, like injuries, plus a county employee and vehicle involved, there may be no option but trial. So we went to trial in the DeKalb County State Court before the Honorable Mike Jacobs.
The officer presented poorly, and his version of the facts did not add up. Though he would never admit it, he appeared to realize that he caused the wreck because as the facts were laid out it became apparent that the officer either ran the red light or just turned when it was unsafe. He became visibly contrite, hanging his head and answering cross-examination with remorse. Later, a State’s Witness testified that there was no red light, confirming that the officer simply turned in front of oncoming traffic. Ultimately the DeKalb Assistant Solicitor acknowledged that they could not prove their case, and the Judge agreed. Our client was found not guilty.
We realized that after everything this wreck had put our client through, between his injuries, sitting trial, and his insurer inexplicably paying a settlement to the officer who caused all of this… he had a case! A messy, ante litem, moderately valued case. So, we referred him to some of our personal injury colleagues. One by one they turned the case down. It didn’t have enough upside. It would require extra work in ante litem. Liability would be disputed. It might be dismissed on a res judicata motion. No one would take the case, including my boss who focused on criminal work, and so in my second year of practice and with a clear uphill battle ahead…he got me as his counsel.
I had hoped to transition into PI work, and this was a challenging first case to take. I also had my own opinions when it came to the police and our justice system and knew that my client had been wronged. So we sued the officer who caused the wreck, and his employer: the DeKalb County Government. In an abundance of caution, I probably served notice of our ante litem claim to every elected official and law enforcement chief in DeKalb County. It would be no good getting a malpractice claim by letting his claim expire for failure to serve the right agent.
There were months of extensive discovery from both sides, and the defense filed a res judicata motion in hopes that the previous civil suit against the client would deem the matter already adjudicated. The judge shot this down. There was a substitution of counsel by the defense when the county hired a different firm for their claims, requiring additional discovery to allow the new attorneys to get up to speed. Our client eventually gave his deposition, testifying that it was the worst pain he’d ever been in, his body “shook up in every direction, hitting the steering wheel and airbags like a laundry machine.” He was adamant about his position and his story, which hadn’t changed since our initial consultation.
I then took depositions with both the involved officer and the lead reporting officer from the incident. The reporting officer was a straight shooter, admitting that there may have been some inaccuracies in his report, and even acknowledging that there may have been a certain conflict of interest by the responding officers all coming from the same precinct as the officer involved. He also conceded that officers on the scene don’t always get it right and admitted that he was unaware that my client had been found not guilty of the very citation he issued.
Next came the officer who caused this wreck, now a defendant. He was a little more combative. Having cross-examined and deposed a couple dozen police officers, I can honestly say he was the most hostile, unlikeable one I’ve ever met. In fact, amusingly, when asked about all the other officers he knew, he admitted he wasn’t very popular within the department.
In our deposition he made a few key admissions: that if both lights were green, he would be at fault; that an investigating officer should always ask both parties their account of the collision; and that he could personally identify four officers and the sergeant in the photos of the accident. In digging into his own disciplinary history and driving record, things only got messier. The officer acknowledged multiple instances of insubordination and suspensions for other offenses at work. He’d even been involved in an accidental shooting when he was part of a unit that entered the wrong home, wounding the resident and killing his dog. To top it off, he’d had a string of car accidents while patrolling, most recently about a week before our deposition.
He was never short on excuses. Despite all the physical evidence and our client’s not guilty verdict, he simply couldn’t admit outright that he caused this wreck. The same was true of every accident and instance of disciplinary action against him. It was always some driver who’d come out of nowhere, or a superior officer who just didn’t get how things are supposed to be done. It was never on him.
I had plenty to work with and, given these times of public scrutiny of our police, felt confident that a DeKalb County jury would hate what this officer and his colleagues did to my client. To my disappointment, the defense and their insurance company agreed. We proceeded to court-ordered mediation, and after some back and forth, received an offer too good and just to pass up. The defense attorney had read the transcripts of the previous trial and agreed that the officer wouldn’t do any better at the next one. The insurance company offered my client over four-and-a-half times his medical special damages, and he decided to accept. In October 2019, we were able to settle a case that plagued this young man for over three years. After a long and twisted litigation process (and with a couple years and a few more injury cases under my belt), I got my client paid for his car, his outstanding bills, and put an additional $25,000 in his pocket. Justice finally prevailed, and one bad cop finally learned his lesson. ●
About the Author
Jason S. Hayet is an Atlanta native, currently in his fifth year of practice, who attended the University of Georgia Terry College of Business as well as the University of Miami School of Law. He began his career in criminal defense with the perennial Super Lawyers of the Maloof Law Firm in DeKalb County. Weekly court appearances are standard in criminal representation, and Jason developed a passion for litigation that would point him toward plaintiff’s work. After a brief stint in insurance defense, he joined Georgia’s largest personal injury firm, Kenneth S. Nugent, P.C., where he is entering his third year. He practices personal injury law, as well as premises liability and products liability, and specializes in automobile, trucking, and DUI cases. Jason can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 770-820-0814.