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Gonzalez v. Johnson

Court of Appeals of Kentucky

April 6, 2018

LUIS J. GONZALEZ, II, AS ADMINISTRATOR OF THE ESTATE OF LUIS J. GONZALEZ APPELLANT
v.
JEREMY JOHNSON, INDIVIDUALLY; JEREMY JOHNSON, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SCOTT COUNTY DEPUTY SHERIFF; TONY HAMPTON, INDIVIDUALLY; AND TONY HAMPTON, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS SCOTT COUNTY SHERIFF APPELLEES

          APPEAL FROM FAYETTE CIRCUIT COURT HONORABLE KIMBERLY N. BUNNELL, JUDGE ACTION NO. 15-CI-00791

          BRIEFS FOR APPELLANT: Jerome P. Prather William R. Garmer John E. Norman

          BRIEF FOR APPELLEE: D. Barry Stilz Robert C. “Coley” Stilz, III Jonathan B. Fannin

          ORAL ARGUMENT FOR APPELLANT: Jerome P. Prather

          ORAL ARGUMENT FOR APPELLEE: D. Barry Stilz

          BEFORE: KRAMER, CHIEF JUDGE; COMBS AND THOMPSON, JUDGES.

          OPINION

          THOMPSON, JUDGE

          The primary issue presented in this appeal is straightforward: Did the trial court err when it ruled that police officers could not be liable for the death of Luis Gonzalez after a fleeing suspect crashed into the vehicle occupied by Gonzalez because the officers' actions were not the proximate cause of his death? In resolving the issue, we are urged to depart from the precedent in Chambers v. Ideal Pure Milk Co., 245 S.W.2d 589 (Ky. 1952), and follow the emerging trend to permit such actions to proceed for a factual determination as to the officers' liability. Because this Court is bound to follow Supreme Court precedent, we reluctantly affirm.

         Luis J. Gonzales, II, as Administrator of the Estate of Luis Gonzalez (the Estate), filed this action alleging state law claims for negligence, gross negligence and wrongful death against Scott County Deputy Sheriff Jeremy Johnson and Scott County Sheriff Tony Hampton, in their individual and official capacities, as well as a claim alleging a failure to train and supervise on the part of Sheriff Hampton. The trial court ruled that the officers' actions were not the proximate cause of Gonzalez's death and granted summary judgment in favor of Deputy Johnson and Sheriff Hampton.

         The events leading to this case occurred on January 14, 2014. That night, the Scott County Sheriff's Office partnered with the Kentucky State Police to conduct a sting operation seeking to arrest a suspected heroin dealer near the Scott County and Fayette County line. Although the initial location of the sting operation was a gas station in Georgetown, the suspected drug dealer changed the meeting location to the P&G Market on Lisle Road in southern Scott County. The officers' intent was to facilitate a controlled heroin buy through the use of a confidential informant in the hope of apprehending the dealer during a traffic stop after the buy. Detective Jeremy Nettles of the Scott County Sheriff's Department was assisted by Deputy Johnson who was instructed to conceal his location by parking on a side street near the Lisle Road and Georgetown Road intersection and remain there until Detective Nettles instructed him to perform a traffic stop.

         The sting operation began at 8:55 p.m. when the suspect entered the P&G Market parking lot in a dark-colored Audi. During the drug buy, Detective Nettles, Kentucky State Police Detective Morris and Deputy Johnson communicated using cell phones. Before the buy was complete, Detective Morris advised Deputy Johnson of the Audi's license plate numbers. After the drug buy, the suspect exited the parking lot in the Audi and Detective Morris followed in an unmarked unit. After the suspect pulled away, the middleman between the informant and the dealer identified the driver of the Audi as "Chief, " an alias used by Kennan McLaughlin. An officer of the Lexington Police Department, who was in contact with Detective Morris during the sting operation, also identified the driver as "Chief."

         Meanwhile, Deputy Johnson remained in his police cruiser while he received information from the other officers including a description of the vehicle being driven by the suspect. Deputy Johnson saw a vehicle matching that description run the red light at the intersection of Lisle Road and U.S. 25. He then radioed dispatch to "call out pursuit, " and activated the cruiser's emergency lights and pursued the Audi. However, the siren on the cruiser was not working.

         About two miles into the pursuit, Deputy Johnson realized his siren was not functioning but continued his high-speed pursuit. Deputy Johnson described the roadway that night as wet and a "little slick" and recalled that the dog in the K-9 unit was also distracting him because the partition in the cruiser had not been properly secured.

         When the suspect and Deputy Johnson approached an S-curve, both slowed down. Deputy Johnson then reassessed the situation because the lack of a siren, the wet road and the restless dog made the pursuit dangerous. Just as he decided to terminate the pursuit and as he came over a hillcrest, he thought he saw the Audi strike a guardrail. Upon reaching the scene, he found that the Audi had crashed head-on into a vehicle in which Gonzales was a passenger. Gonzales was pronounced dead at the scene and Geneva Spencer, the driver of the vehicle, died later because of her injuries.

         McLaughlin pled guilty to two counts of second-degree manslaughter. In doing so, McLaughlin admitted to wantonly causing the death of another person pursuant to Kentucky Revised Statutes (KRS) 507.040.

          Sheriff Hampton testified by deposition. He testified that when he became Scott County Sheriff in January 2011, the department did not have any written policies and procedures regarding police pursuits and did not until May 1, 2014, four months after Gonzalez's death. Until that time, officers relied on basic training and past department practices. Detective Nettles ...


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