Jury finds Kent Police not negligent in pursuit injury case

Verdict reached in less than 20 minutes

A King County Superior Court jury found that Kent Police were not negligent during a pursuit when a fleeing vehicle later crashed into another car and seriously injured the driver.

The jury voted 11-1 on Friday to check the “No” box on the verdict form in the civil case that asked if the city of Kent was negligent. It takes 10 or more votes for a verdict.

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 claimed police were negligent to pursue Wanaka and should have stopped the chase or not even started it.

“This verdict is not a surprise to us,” Kent City Attorney Pat Fitzpatrick said in an email. “Kent officers followed police policy and the law when they responded to the acts of a dangerous criminal. They did their job to protect the public. The jury agreed, and did so quickly, rendering its verdict in less than 20 minutes. It is unfortunate that Mr. Gardi was injured, but the criminal, Ms. Wanaka, bears 100 percent responsibility for his injuries.”

Gardi wasn’t present when the jury verdict was read in Judge John McHale’s courtroom at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent after the two-week trial. Scott Smith, one of Gardi’s attorneys, declined to comment, except that his client might appeal. If the jury had ruled the city was negligent, a separate jury and trial would have decided any financial damages.

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.

Seattle attorney Andy Cooley, representing the city of Kent, told the jury during his closing argument Thursday that the plaintiff’s attorney wants them to blame officers Robert Kellams and Michael Morfoot for the injuries – that their pursuit caused Wanaka to crash into Gardi.

“To me that’s a serious allegation that requires serious proof,” Cooley said. “I’m asking you to make a declaration that these officers didn’t do anything wrong that these claims of negligence have not been proven and to clear their names and let them walk out of this courtroom with their heads held high because they were doing good work and doing their best with a criminal.”

Cooley then put the blame on Wanaka.

“She admitted to smoking a bowl of marijuana in the morning and that she was affected by the drugs in her system,” he said. “She plead guilty to the DUI. She admitted she knew the police were trying to stop her but didn’t know if he had a siren on and that when she hit Gardi she didn’t see a police car. …She was still driving crazy, reckless, high and not thinking about the police but her own interests.”

Cooley claimed that police stopped the estimated pursuit of 48 seconds shortly before the crash. He referred to earlier testimony by Kent Assistant Police Chief Derek Kammerzell that fleeing drivers often don’t stop when police chase them.

“When these people start to run from us, they drive crazy – even when we terminate they continue to drive fast,” Cooley said. “This is a fairy tale and a fantasy the idea that the city has this control over Wanaka that if we turn off our lights and siren, her foot comes off the accelerator and goes on the brakes and she starts to drive as a reasonable motorist even though she’s high as a kite.”

Seattle attorney Francisco Duarte, who represented Gardi, told the jury during his closing argument that this was all about following rules and the officers failed to follow the Kent Police pursuit policy to terminate the chase.

Officer Kellams spotted expired license plate tabs on Wanaka’s vehicle and that’s why he pulled out behind her to stop her in the 24800 block of 104th Avenue Southeast. But Wanaka kept driving. She rammed into a car stopped at a red light in order to turn right onto Southeast 256th Street. Officer Morfoot heard Wanaka smash into another car and began to pursue her down Southeast 256th Street, which turns into Canyon Drive, where she crashed into Gardi’s car.

“The (Kent Police) policy says they must apprehend people who break the law but it must be balanced against the greater concern for the safety of the public and the employees,” Duarte said. “That rule simplifies the decision. You heard from Sgt. (Robert) Constant that if he had known the initial reason for the pursuit was an infraction (expired tabs) he would have terminated it from the outset.”

Duarte later told the jury he wasn’t asking them to find the police 100 percent at fault for the accident but more like 10 percent at fault.

“Wanaka is mostly at fault,” he said. “But it takes two to have a chase. …Some have suggested 50/50 at fault, that’s too much. But there is fault. …They did not follow policy and the policy is the standard of care. It was their conduct and their behavior that was part of the story that resulted in Samir’s injuries. The rules were not followed.”

Cooley told the jury the pursuit policy is a guideline and not an order. He also said Morfoot testified that he stopped the pursuit seconds before the crash after he lost sight of Wanaka.

“The plaintiff has to prove to you that we were in the pursuit of a violator at the moment of the collision between Wanaka and Gardi,” he said. “If you find the pursuit was terminated, then the city gets the verdict because there was no negligence.”

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