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Bristol v. Gonzales Police Department

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

December 21, 2017

DONNA BRISTOL & SYLVESTER BRISTOL, SR., INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF THEIR DECEASED MINOR CHILD, SYLVESTER BRISTOL, JR.
v.
GONZALES POLICE DEPARTMENT, CITY OF GONZALES, AND THE DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC SAFETY AND CORRECTIONS/LOUISIANA STATE POLICE BARBARA DABNEY, BRETT DABNEY, SHANNON BOWERS, KIMBERLY McKNIGHT AND LAWRENCE W. McKNIGHT, JR., INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF THEIR MINOR CHILD, KAYLA McKNIGHT VERSUS
v.
SAFEWAY INSURANCE COMPANY, DONNA CARTER, INDIVIDUALLY AND ON BEHALF OF THE ESTATE OF HER MINOR CHILD, SYLVESTER BRISTOL, CITY OF GONZALES, GONZALES POLICE DEPARTMENT, PARISH OF ASCENSION, LOUISIANA STATE POLICE DEPARTMENT, AND STATE OF LOUISIANA THROUGH THE DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION AND DEVELOPMENT TYRONE JOHNSON AND LATORIA SINGLETON ON BEHALF OF THEIR MINOR CHILD, TA'RYAN SINGLETON
v.
SYLVESTER BRISTOL, DONNA CARTER BRISTOL, SAFEWAY INSURANCE COMPANY OF LOUISIANA, LOUISIANA STATE POLICE, JOHN DOE, AND STATE OF LOUISIANA

         On Appeal from the 19th Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of East Baton Rouge State of Louisiana Trial Court Numbers 519, 840 c/w 529, 927 c/w 530, 002 Honorable Todd W. Hernandez, Judge Presiding

          Sean D. Fagan Locke Meredith Baton Rouge, LA Attorneys for Plaintiffs-Appellants, Barbara Dabney, et al.

          Peter "Q" John Baton Rouge, LA Attorney for Plaintiffs-Appellees, Donna Bristol, et al.

          Lana D. Crump Bradley C. Myers Katie D. Bell Baton Rouge, LA Attorneys for Defendant-Appellee, City of Gonzales

          Jeff Landry Attorney General Stacey A. Moak Special Assistant Attorney General Christopher W. Stidham Breann Crane Assistant Attorneys General Baton Rouge, LA Attorneys for Defendant-Appellee, the State of Louisiana, through the Department of Public Safety and Corrections, Louisiana State Police

          BEFORE: HIGGINBOTHAM, HOLDRIDGE, AND PENZATO, JJ.

         HIGGINBOTHAM, J.

         These consolidated matters arose out of a high-speed police pursuit that resulted in a fatal crash. The plaintiffs appeal the dismissal of their personal injury claims following a seven-day jury trial that culminated in a jury verdict finding no liability on the part of the sole remaining defendant, the Louisiana State Police.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On March 7, 2004, a fourteen-year-old unlicensed young man, Sylvester Bristol, Jr. ("Sylvester"), was driving his mother's Oldsmobile in Gonzales, Louisiana. It was approximately 7:54 p.m., when Sylvester was stopped behind a few other vehicles in the left turn lane at an intersection on northbound Airline Highway. While stopped at the intersection, Officer Duane Carpenter of the City of Gonzales Police Department ("the City") observed that the Oldsmobile did not have its headlights activated. When the stoplight turned green and the Oldsmobile had cleared the intersection, Officer Carpenter moved in behind the Oldsmobile and turned on the blue overhead lights on his police car. Sylvester continued to drive without slowing, stopping, or pulling over.

         While following the Oldsmobile around various streets throughout Gonzales, Officer Carpenter requested information about the vehicle's license plate from the City's dispatch. He was informed that the vehicle had not been reported stolen. He also learned that the Oldsmobile was registered to Donna Carter Bristol, but Officer Carpenter had no idea who was actually driving the vehicle. When it was apparent that Sylvester was not stopping, that he was driving in the center of the road at times, and that he was driving through several stop signs and red lights without stopping, all without headlights turned on, Officer Carpenter decided to activate his siren, and persist in his pursuit of the Oldsmobile. Additionally, Officer Carpenter notified the City's dispatch that the ongoing pursuit was headed toward Interstate 10 ("I-10"). At that point, Officer Carpenter requested the assistance of the Louisiana State Police ("LSP"). At approximately 7:59 p.m., Sylvester entered 1-10 and began speeding westbound toward Baton Rouge without his headlights on, even though it was dark outside.

         Once Sylvester was driving on I-10, the City's police officers slowed to allow the LSP to take over the pursuit around the Highland Road entrance to I-10. State Troopers attempted to put down a spike strip across the interstate ahead of the Highland Road interchange, but they failed to get set up before Sylvester passed by. At approximately 8:04 p.m., Trooper Matthew Sinanan pulled onto 1-10 westbound at the Highland Road entrance ramp, with his blue overhead lights and siren activated. Trooper Sinanan was able to position himself in front of Sylvester's vehicle in an attempt to slow the Oldsmobile down. According to the trooper at that point in the pursuit on I-10, their speeds ranged anywhere from 80-100 miles per hour and all the while, Sylvester repeatedly attempted to pass Trooper Sinanan. The trooper maneuvered back and forth between lanes to prevent Sylvester's passage. Suddenly Sylvester drove onto the grassy median between the eastbound and westbound lanes, in an apparent move to pass Trooper Sinanan. While driving in the median at a slower speed, somewhere between 50-70 miles per hour, the trooper observed Sylvester moving his hands back and forth. He also made direct eye contact with Trooper Sinanan before grabbing the Oldsmobile's steering wheel and seemingly intentionally jerking the vehicle back to the right and onto the travel surface of 1-10. In doing so, the Oldsmobile sideswiped the back driver's side of Trooper Sinanan's vehicle, causing the trooper to slow down long enough to allow Sylvester to pull ahead.

         Meanwhile, Trooper Henry Reavis, entered I-10 eastbound at Highland Road and performed a U-turn on the east side of the interstate to join the pursuit of the Oldsmobile. Trooper Reavis also had his blue overhead lights and siren activated as he passed the City's officers, Trooper Sinanan, and Sylvester, to take the lead in an attempt to slow the Oldsmobile down. Trooper Sinanan followed 5-6 car lengths behind Sylvester. The Oldsmobile continued to erratically swerve from side to side in the travel lanes, until Trooper Reavis made the decision to allow Sylvester to pass him. Trooper Reavis persisted in the pursuit, however, he did so by following Sylvester closely rather than trying to regain the lead. At this point in the pursuit, the speeds ranged anywhere from 60-100 miles per hour, with Sylvester flashing his lights for other cars ahead of him to move out of his way. Just prior to the Siegen Lane exit on I-10, Sylvester slammed on his brakes, causing Trooper Reavis's vehicle to collide with the rear of the Oldsmobile. Sylvester then faked an exit at Siegen Lane, but he remained speeding on I-10 toward the city of Baton Rouge. Just after the Siegen Lane exit, Sylvester slammed on his brakes a second time, causing another impact with Trooper Reavis, who was following within 1-2 car lengths behind the Oldsmobile at that particular time.

         A mere 13 minutes after the pursuit began in Gonzales, and 3-4 minutes after the LSP became involved in the pursuit, the Oldsmobile reached the Bluebonnet exit on I-10 westbound. Sylvester once again faked an exit at Bluebonnet, but then he made an abrupt left turn in front of Trooper Reavis and crossed into the median headed directly for the eastbound lane of I-10, as if he were attempting a U-turn to head back toward Gonzales on the interstate. At the exact same time that Sylvester was entering the median and then the eastbound lane of I-10, a Chevrolet Impala driven by Kimberly McKnight, was headed eastbound on I-10 toward New Orleans, approaching the Bluebonnet interchange at a speed of approximately 65-70 miles per hour. Kimberly's vehicle contained seven passengers, who were all headed home from a family wedding. At some point in the median, Sylvester lost control of the Oldsmobile, causing the Oldsmobile to rotate clockwise at a high rate of speed (approximately 60-70 miles per hour) into the oncoming path of Kimberly's vehicle. The Oldsmobile was broad-sided on the driver's side door and Sylvester died upon impact. All of the passengers in Kimberly's vehicle were severely injured.

         Following the accident, three lawsuits were filed, all seeking damages for bodily injuries. Kimberly and her various passengers filed two of the lawsuits, and one of the lawsuits was filed by Sylvester's parents. All three lawsuits were consolidated for trial, but by the time the jury trial occurred ten years later, in September 2015, the only remaining defendants were the City and the LSP. After the fourth day of trial, the City reached a settlement agreement with the plaintiffs and the City was dismissed. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the LSP, finding no liability because it determined that the LSP had not been grossly negligent during the pursuit of Sylvester. A judgment in favor of the LSP was signed by the trial court on October 6, 2015. The plaintiffs moved for a new trial, but it was denied. Not all of the plaintiffs filed a motion for appeal; however, the Dabney plaintiffs (Barbara Dabney, Shannon Bowers, Lawrence and Kimberly McKnight, individually and on behalf of their minor child, Kayla McKnight, and Ta'Ryan Singleton) appealed the judgment dismissing their personal injury claims that was rendered in accordance with the jury's verdict.[1]

         ASSIGNMENTS OF ERROR

         The Dabney plaintiffs contend that the trial court erred by instructing the jury that the applicable standard of care from La. R.S. 32:24 was "gross negligence/reckless disregard" and, alternatively, that the jury erred by not finding that the LSP was grossly negligent in the pursuit of Sylvester. The Dabney plaintiffs also urge that the trial court erred in failing to grant a mistrial when one of the LSP's witnesses mentioned that a child was unrestrained in Kimberly's vehicle, apparently in violation of a prior motion in limine ruling. Finally, the Dabney plaintiffs assign error to the trial court's exclusion of testimony by Colonel Terry Landry, a witness who would have ostensibly opined about several procedural violations on the part of the LSP during the pursuit of Sylvester.

         LAW ...


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