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District of Columbia v. Hawkins

October 04, 2001


Before Wagner, Chief Judge, and Steadman, Associate Judge, and Kern, Senior Judge.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Wagner, Chief Judge

Appeals from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia (Hon. Arthur L. Burnett, Sr., Trial Judge)

Argued April 13, 1999

At issue in these consolidated appeals is whether appellant, the District of Columbia, is liable for the deaths of the driver and a passenger in a motor vehicle which was struck by the driver of another vehicle who was being pursued in a high speed chase by police officers of the District of Columbia Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Donna Love, who was driving, and her seven year old nephew, James Gripper, Jr., were killed in the accident. Appellees, Natalie Love Hawkins, individually and as personal representative of the Estate of James Bernell Gripper, Jr. and Reginald Lamont Dease, individually and as personal representative of the Estate of Donna Love, brought the actions under the District of Columbia Wrongful Death Act (D.C. Code § 16-2701) (2001)and the District of Columbia Survival Act (D.C. Code § 12-101) (2001). *fn1

A jury awarded damages on behalf of appellees in the total amount of $5,997,751.77. The trial court denied the District's post trial motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict, concluding that the evidence supported the finding that the police officers' conduct constituted gross negligence. *fn2 The trial court granted, in part, the District's motion for remittitur, ordering appellees to remit the sum of $3,772,153.00. This resulted in a judgment of $753,169.61 to Natalie Love Hawkins as mother and personal representative of the estate of James Gripper, Jr., $160,000.00 individually to Reginald Lamont Dease as husband of Donna Love, $702,529.16 to Reginald Lamont Dease as personal representative of the estate of Donna Love, and $609,900.00 to Myron Harley, Sr. as father and legal guardian of Myron Harley, Jr. and Sandy Harley. The District appealed from the denial of its motion for judgment as a matter of law. Appellees cross appealed from the order granting remittitur; however, they dismissed the cross appeal when they filed their brief.

The District argues for reversal on the grounds that:

(1) the evidence did not establish that its police officers were grossly negligent in conducting the high speed chase;

(2) it was error to submit the claim of negligent training to the jury under an ordinary negligence standard, and gross negligence was not shown; and

(3) it was plain error to allow damages for loss of maternal services, which is parent-child consortium, and not allowed in this jurisdiction; and

(4) the damages for pain, suffering and pre-death mental anguish are excessive.

We hold that a reasonable juror could find from the evidence that the MPD officers' gross negligence caused the accident and that there is no basis for reversing the damages award. Therefore, we affirm.

I. The Evidence

A. The High Speed Chase

On May 7, 1991, at about 6:00 p.m., Joseph Brooks saw a Nissan Pathfinder hit a pedestrian near the 300 block of Ridge Road, S.E. and drive away. Brooks called to bystanders to alert the police. Almost immediately, a citizen reported the hit and run accident to Officers Thomas Lee and Norman Power, who were in the area in Scout Car 50. Officer Lee, who was driving, activated his vehicle's lights and sirens and tried to pull the Pathfinder over. The driver of the Pathfinder made a left turn onto 37th Street, turned on Ely Place, S.E., and proceeded toward Minnesota Avenue, S.E. As the Pathfinder made the turn onto Ely Place, a passenger jumped out of the vehicle. While on Ely Place, the Pathfinder traveled at increasing speeds, ranging from 50 miles per hour to 90 miles per hour. Donna Love was driving a Dodge Colt that day, and her seven year old nephew, James Gripper, Jr., was with her. Ms. Love was traveling north on Minnesota Avenue through the intersection of Ely Place when the Pathfinder entered the intersection and struck Ms. Love's car. Ms. Love was thrown from the car, and both she and her nephew died at the scene as a result of their injuries.

The speed limit in the area was 25 miles per hour. There was testimony that there is an incline on Ely Place about 300 hundred feet before it reaches Minnesota Avenue which prevents a motorist from seeing the intersection at Minnesota Avenue and Ely Place. There was evidence that there was a pre-school building located in the area where the pursuit began and that 37th Street is a residential area with private homes and multi-unit apartment buildings. Sousa Junior High School is at 37th Street and Ely Place, and an elementary school is at Ely Place and Minnesota Avenue, according to the evidence. Officer Lee, the driver of the lead police car, testified that he was familiar with the area and knew that it was residential, with schools and day care centers. Officer Norman Power testified that both he and Officer Lee knew that there was traffic at the intersection of Minnesota Avenue and Ely Place and that it was rush hour. Officer Power also testified that vehicle pursuits should be called off when the speed becomes excessive and that 70, 80 and 90 miles per hour during rush hour is excessive. He estimated the Pathfinder's speed at 80 miles per hour immediately before the collision. Officer Lee testified that he slammed on his brakes when he saw the red light and to avoid colliding with the Pathfinder. Officer Lee said that he did not come to a stop until he was in the intersection.

Officer Stringer and his partner, Officer Marable, were in Scout Car 51, pursuing behind Scout Car 50. Officer Marable, who was driving, testified that he also knew the neighborhood was residential, that there were schools and a day care center in the area, and that it was rush hour. He testified that he knew by the time the Pathfinder reached 37th Street and Ridge Road that it would not stop. He also testified that a vehicle pursuit at 70, 80, 90 or 100 miles per hour ...

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