Harb v. City of Bakersfield – Alleged Improper Police Response to Crash Warrants New Trial

It would seem a man involved in a relatively minor, single-car crash precipitated by his own medical emergency might not have sufficient grounds to pursue litigation against anyone.
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But in fact, he may have ample grounds for pursuing a claim against the city employer of police officers who responded to the scene and failed to immediately get him medical attention. Instead, the evidence presented in Harb v. City of Bakersfield tends to suggest officers early on determined driver was drunk, when in fact, he’d had a stroke and was suffering a continuing brain bleed while treatment was delayed. A paramedic called to the scene cleared the man medically, and left the scene without referring him for further care.

However, the driver, a pediatric intensive care doctor still in his scrubs, on his way home from a 12-hour shift, ultimately suffered serious brain damage. While he survived, is no longer able to care for himself.

He and his wife later sued the city, the responding officer and the ambulance driver for negligence in failing to use reasonable care. A jury returned a defense verdict, but the California Court of Appeals for the Fifth District reversed, finding instructions to jurors were flawed and confusing, potentially leading jurors to believe the officer had immunity despite negligence, even though that wasn’t the case.

Spartanburg car accident attorneys understand that while defense lawyers pressed for – and received – a comparative fault instruction due to plaintiff’s failure to manage his high blood pressure (which led to the stroke, which led to the crash), appellate court later deemed this instruction improper too. Plaintiff was not seeking to hold defendants liable for the crash, but rather aggravation of his condition by way of a failure to call for immediate medical attention. Therefore, plaintiff’s own pre-accident conduct can’t be considered comparative negligence when his conduct was simply the trigger for the occasion for aid.

According to court records, the doctor suffered a stroke while driving home and drove his vehicle onto a sidewalk. Witnesses contact police, noting the man was outside his vehicle vomiting, disoriented and attempting to leave the scene.

Responding officer noted the doctor’s slurred speech and disorientation. She assumed he was drunk, though she did not smell alcohol on his breath. After a struggle, she got him in handcuffs. A blood-alcohol breath test was administered, and the doctor blew a 0.00 percent. One officer remarked there must be something wrong with the test. When a second test rendered the same results, another officer posited the doctor was “on pills.”

An ambulance was finally called, and after testing the physician’s blood glucose levels, the paramedic medically cleared him.

However, a nurse who worked with the doctor happened by the scene and stopped to see what was going on. She quickly determined the doctor should be rushed to a medical facility. A second ambulance was called. Meanwhile, a nurse from the hospital called the doctor’s phone to talk about a patient. She told the officer who answered there was no way the doctor was impaired – he had just left the hospital and, aside from that, he was on call.

The second ambulance transported him to the hospital, at which time his stroke was diagnosed. By then, however, severe and permanent damage had been done to his brain.

Both an emergency room physician and neurosurgeon who treated the doctor testified the delay in getting the doctor treatment adversely affected his prognosis.

A neurosurgeon retained by defendant, meanwhile, testified there were only two possible outcomes in the case: death or the condition the doctor is in now.

In reversing the jury’s verdict favorable to defense, appellate court pointed to a poorly-written jury instruction that used the phrase “exercise of due care” as it pertained to the officer, but failed to define that term. Because of the ambiguity of that instruction and the erroneous instruction on comparative fault, the verdict was reversed and the case remanded for a new trial.

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

Additional Resources:
Harb v. City of Bakersfield, Jan. 23, 2015, California Court of Appeal, Fifth Appellate District

More Blog Entries:
Gonsalves v. Li – $1.2M Crash Verdict Reversed for Trial Errors, Feb. 3, 2015, Spartanburg Crash Lawyer Blog

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