Civil trial opens about whether Kent Police pursuit caused injury

Man hurt in 2015 crash

Whether or not a Kent Police pursuit of a fleeing vehicle caused a man to be injured looms at the center of a King County Superior Court civil trial that started Thursday.

Samir Gardi filed a complaint for damages against the city of Kent in March 2016 after he suffered serious injuries in a 10 a.m. Jan. 6, 2015, car crash in the 9000 block of Canyon Drive. A car driven westbound by Ashley Wanaka – as she fled police – crashed into Gardi as she crossed into oncoming traffic. Gardi claims police were negligent to pursue Wanaka and should have stopped the chase or not even started it.

The 12-member jury in Judge John McHale’s courtroom at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent will decide whether or not the city is liable. A separate jury and trial would decide any financial damages.

“He was coming from work that morning and heading back home,” said Seattle attorney Francisco Duarte during his opening statement in support of Gardi. “He was driving east on Canyon Drive when Wanaka – who was fleeing police and police were continuing to pursue – (crashed into him).

“We are going to show when the (Kent Police pursuit) policy is followed, it prevents collisions like this one. We are going to show when the policy is not followed, this is exactly what happens – innocent bystanders get injured.

“We are going to tell you that the officers are good people. But we are going to prove in this case that good people make mistakes. That’s what happened in this case and that’s why we are here.”

Seattle attorney Andy Cooley, representing the city of Kent, argued in his opening statement that the officers followed police pursuit policy and the fault lies with Wanaka because she fled.

“This is a case about holding a criminal accountable,” Cooley said.

Police attempted to pull over Wanaka after Officer Robert Kellams saw she had expired tabs driving southbound in the 24800 block of 104th Avenue Southeast. Kellams turned on his emergency lights and used a siren but Wanaka kept going for several blocks until she stopped for vehicles at a red light at the Southeast 256th Street intersection.

Officer Michael Morfoot was stopped in his vehicle at the intersection and saw Wanaka approach in her green Toyota Camry.

“(Morfoot) saw her ram a car that was blocking her escape, pushing it out of the way and allowing her to head down 256th,” Cooley said. “He has a job to do at that point and that’s to enforce the laws in the city of Kent and try to take this dangerous driver off the road. Officer Morfoot began to chase her, and they accelerated to speeds of close to 70 mph. She was pulling away and he terminated the pursuit. Less than 50 seconds went by in this encounter.

“He lost sight of her, she was gone. He terminated (the pursuit). He came around the corner finding that she had gone into the oncoming lane and hit Mr. Gardi.”

Morfoot has worked as a Kent Police patrol officer since 2002.

“The plaintiffs are going to try to tell you that he’s not competent – that he is a dangerous officer who is responsible for this criminal’s behavior,” Cooley said. “At the end of this trial, we are going to ask you to find for the officer that the police are not responsible for what this criminal did and to clear these officers’ names and let them walk out of the courtroom with their head held high.”

Cooley summarized for the jury how he views the case.

“This is only a case that decides one issue, whether the city’s police officers are responsible for what (Wanaka) did,” Cooley said. “She admits she’s at fault. The question is only is the city responsible for what this criminal did.”

After the 2015 accident, paramedics transported Gardi to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle where doctors performed emergency surgery, according to charging documents filed against Wanaka in 2015. He suffered a severely broken leg, pelvis and other serious injuries. Gardi was 37 years old at the time. After his release from the hospital, he spent significant time at the Talbot Rehabilitation Center in Renton, according to court documents.

King County prosecutors charged Wanaka, then age 24, with vehicular assault, attempting to elude a pursuing police officer, DUI and hit and run. She pleaded guilty to the charges.

Wanaka told police she fled because she didn’t have a driver’s license and she had warrants for her arrest. Officers discovered she had warrants for prostitution, drug possession and negligent driving.

Prior to the trial, attorneys discussed with Judge McHale about what evidence would be allowed at trial and if it applied to the actual pursuit or not. The attorneys went back and forth on several issues.

After opening statements, Duarte asked for a mistrial because he claimed Cooley violated several of the stipulations about what could be discussed.

“The court said there would be no discussion about felony eluding and vehicle assault except that she plead guilty to vehicle assault and that she smoked a bowl of marijuana and admitted to be under the influence of that,” Duarte said. “But the court was very careful to point out that anything beyond that was wrong. He mentioned felony eluding, the whole thing about the vehicular assault and other offenses contrary to the court’s ruling.

“He also was very strategic about how he did it. Instead of mentioning the specific offenses, he substituted the term criminal, I counted 20 times at least he used criminal, and that’s an indirect way of violating the court’s ruling. Maybe your honor didn’t say not to use the word criminal, but he violated the spirit of the ruling by talking about criminal, criminal, criminal.”

Cooley responded to the motion for a mistrial.

“My understanding is I’m not allowed to say she plead guilty to felony eluding or all the crimes she was charged with,” Cooley said. “Mr. Duarte heard something different than I did. I heard we cannot talk about the warrants she had, the gun she was possessing because we didn’t know that (at the time of the pursuit). … Mr. Morfoot witnessed the crime of felony eluding and that’s what I told the jury and that’s completely consistent with the court’s limits.

“I didn’t come close to the line in my opinion. I stayed fairly and firmly away from it and I didn’t violate anything.”

Judge McHale ruled on the mistrial request.

“The way I perceived it, and there were many references to criminal but many were to training officers go through to apprehend criminals,” McHale said. “The reference to felony crimes that the officer had probable cause to believe a crime had been committed – that may have been a bit gratuitous to state one was a felony and not refer to the others as misdemeanors. But I am going to deny the motion for a mistrial and I am not allowing information to come in that she plead guilty to DUI, vehicular assault or to the attempt to elude.

“But what this officer observed on the basis for why he took off from the lane he was in and continued on with the pursuit I will allow it.”

The trial is expected to take about a week before going to the jury. Both sides will call in expert witnesses to talk about police pursuits. Other witnesses include the two officers involved in the pursuit and Kent Police command staff who are involved with pursuit policies and reviewed the case.

Kent Police ruled after the incident that the officers followed pursuit policy 100 percent, Cooley said.

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