Truhan v. Walston – NC Appeals Court Reverses Crash Case Dismissal

The North Carolina Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment in favor of a plaintiff police officer who sued a woman he struck while traveling 87 mph through an intersection in response to an emergency.
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In Truhan v. Walston, the court found there were numerous issues of material fact that warranted further consideration by a jury, and the officer was not automatically protected by sovereign immunity just because he was on duty at the time of the crash.

Our Greensboro car accident lawyers know that while public servants in general are afforded a broad range of legal protections while carrying out their duties, those protections are not without limit. Crash cases involving government workers must be handled by an experienced injury lawyer.

This case was complex because not only did the officer sue the other driver whom he struck, he also sued her husband, the owner of the vehicle, under the Family Purpose Doctrine.This allows injured parties to sue the owner of a vehicle for damages, regardless of whether the owner was operating the car or gave permission to the driver to operate it. The defendant counter-sued the officer in his official and individual capacity for injuries she sustained during the wreck.

According to court records, this case first started with a crash early one December morning. A call was placed to 911 by a caller who indicated that while there were no injuries, a male and female on the scene were arguing heatedly and it was getting physical. (Other witnesses would later indicate this report was exaggerated.)

The closest unit to the scene was a deputy who was leaving a gas station. Although he normally spent his days serving warrants, he agreed to respond to the scene of the crash. He sped to the scene, reportedly at speeds exceeding 95 mph on a road with a speed limit of 45 mph. Less than two miles from the gas station, he struck the defendant’s vehicle as she pulled into the intersection. At the time of the crash, the deputy’s blue lights were activated, but his siren was not. The defendant indicated she had looked left, right and left again before proceeding into the intersection. She only caught the flash of the blue lights seconds after she pulled into the intersection. She did not have enough time to react before impact. Traffic crash investigators would later say the deputy maintained full throttle acceleration until approximately one-half second before the crash. Both parties suffered serious injuries.

Plaintiff filed suit, alleging the defendant failed to yield. In her countersuit, defendant argued plaintiff should have been on alert and noticed her vehicle before she began to make the turn. Both sides sought compensatory and punitive damages.

The trial court granted the plaintiff’s motion for summary judgment and dismissed all of the defendant’s claims. The appellate court reversed, finding the forecast of evidence established a genuine issue of material fact regarding the deputy’s gross negligence.

While N.C. Gen. Stat. 20-145 allows officers to exceed the posted speed limit in certain circumstances, there is evidence the deputy’s actions in this case were outside of those circumstances. The law specifically bars an officer from engaging in actions that display reckless disregard for the safety of others.

Whether an officer pursuit at high speeds is justified takes into account the reason for the pursuit, the probability of injury to the public due to this decision and the officer’s conduct during the pursuit.

Here, the officer was responding to the scene of a minor crash with no injuries. Although he stated concern for a potential “violent” situation, there is no indication from the recorded audio that plaintiff even knew about the reported disturbance. This will be an issue for the jury. Still, even assuming he was aware, there is no evidence the disturbance was serious or that anyone was in danger of injury.

The court also noted at the time of the crash – 7:20 a.m. – many people are heading to work, young children are on their way to school and there is evidence to suggest the plaintiff flouted state law and departmental policy to follow due care in such situations.

Thus, the earlier ruling was reversed and the case will proceed to trial.

Contact the Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Truhan v. Walston, Aug. 5, 2014, North Carolina Court of Appeals

More Blog Entries:
Correa v. Estate of Hascall – Car Accident Lawsuit Against Estate of Deceased, Aug. 13, 2014, Greensboro Car Accident Lawyer Blog

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