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DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA v. HENDERSON

April 30, 1998

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, APPELLANT,
V.
KEVIN HENDERSON, SR., ET AL., APPELLEES.



APPEAL FROM THE SUPERIOR COURT, CURTIS E. VON KANN, J.

Before Steadman, Farrell and Reid, Associate Judges.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Steadman, Associate Judge:

In this case, we are asked to determine whether the District of Columbia can be held liable for the collision between a civilian vehicle occupied by appellees and two police cars on an emergency run. We reverse the judgments in favor of appellees because they failed to demonstrate that the police acted with "gross negligence," as required by D.C.Code § 1-1212 (1992) and more particularly defined in our recent decision in District [710 A2d Page 875]

of Columbia v. Walker, 689 A.2d 40 (D.C. 1997).

I.

Two Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) cruisers, responding to a "Code One" emergency, ran a red light and struck a car carrying appellees Kevin Henderson, Sr., and his two children, Kevin Jr. and Rheana. The appellees sued the District for injuries they sustained in the collision. A jury returned a verdict for the appellees in the amount of $120,000, of which $100,000 represented Henderson's damages and $20,000 represented those of his two children. The District moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (JNOV), or, in the alternative, for remittitur or a new trial. The trial court denied the motion for JNOV but granted a new trial on the grounds that the $100,000 awarded to Henderson "shock[ed] the conscience of the Court and [was] so inordinately large as obviously to exceed the maximum limit of a reasonable range." *fn1 The trial court rescinded its grant of a new trial, however, when Henderson accepted a remittitur of his damages to $50,000.

On appeal, the District argues that the trial court should have granted its motion for JNOV as to all three plaintiffs because the evidence was insufficient to show gross negligence.

II.

When reviewing the denial of a motion for JNOV, we view the facts in the light most favorable to the appellees and reverse "only if no reasonable juror could have reached the verdict." Walker, supra, 689 A.2d at 42 (quoting Kane v. Ryan, 596 A.2d 562, 564 (D.C. 1991)). Accordingly, the following presentation of facts is in the light most favorable to Henderson and his two children.

The accident occurred at about 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, December 12, 1992, as Henderson drove the children home from a Christmas party. The conditions were rainy and "getting dark," and Henderson activated his headlights. The streets were wet from the rain, and there was testimony at trial that the stretch of road in question may have been particularly slippery in wet weather because of oil deposits on the asphalt. Henderson drove his gray 1987 Jaguar west on V Street, N.E., and prepared to make a left turn onto Bladensburg Road. Bladensburg is a major six-lane road, with three lanes in each direction. Its intersection with V Street is controlled by traffic lights, and Henderson had the green light. When he entered the intersection, Henderson was not aware of two MPD cruisers approaching him from the left on Bladensburg Road.

The cruisers were responding to a Code One emergency call to assist motorists who were trapped in their vehicle after an accident near the intersection of Bladensburg Road and South Dakota Avenue, N.E. Officer Nathaniel Davis drove the first of the two police cars. He activated his emergency sirens and flashing lights, and he also turned on his high-beam headlights. Davis was driving at approximately thirty to thirty-five miles per hour. That stretch of Bladensburg Road had a speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour, but Officer Davis knew that police vehicles are allowed to exceed the speed limit in an emergency. *fn2

As Davis approached the intersection, other cars traveling in his direction were stopped for a red light. A traffic regulation allows police cars on emergency runs to proceed through red lights, "but only after slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation." 18 DCMR § 2002.2(b). MPD General Order 301.3 went further than the regulation and required each police vehicle on an emergency run to come to a complete stop before attempting to proceed through a red light. Nevertheless, despite the regulation and General Order, the latter of which Davis thought controlling, he did not apply his brakes until he had reached the crosswalk before the intersection of Bladensburg and V and presumably saw Henderson. At that [710 A2d Page 876]

point, he applied his brakes but was not able to avoid a collision.

Davis struck the left front headlight and quarter panel of Henderson's Jaguar. The police officer in the second cruiser also was unable to stop and rear-ended Officer Davis's cruiser. One of the two police cars then struck the Henderson car again, damaging the left rear quarter panel, brake light, ...


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