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Innocent victims in NC police pursuit crashes have few options: 'There needs to be responsibility'

A state supreme court decision 20 years ago limits police liability in chases. Attorneys think a 2022 CMPD fatal rush hour pursuit should now change the law.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A coordinated effort by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police to stop a man for a minor traffic offense, prompting him to flee, left an innocent woman dead and her friend in a coma for a month, yet as her parents demand justice and the survivor faces mounting hospital bills, they're left with little recourse.

"One of the things that we're trying to fight is government immunity," Webb family attorney Paul Dickinson said. "What the law does is that it takes away the rights of the individuals, the innocent victims."

Attorneys for Brittany Webb's family and Aaron Norward say a Supreme Court of North Carolina decision more than two decades ago gives police wide legal protection.

Norward and Webb were innocently driving down Statesville Road in January at the exact time police tried to stop a Black man for driving with a covered, but still visible license plate. The man fled and then crashed.

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Credit: Aaron Norward

Six months later, Norward continues his long recovery. Aaron had to learn how to swallow, talk and walk again after spending a month in a coma. His attorney said his hospital bill alone tops $500,000. He was uninsured at the time.

"It makes me feel terrible to know what they have been through," Norward's attorney Gary Mauney said. "The city ends up bearing no legal responsibility for this."

A 1999 ruling solidified what they consider a lack of police liability.

In Parish v. Hill, the estate of Louis Parish sued three Hillsborough police officers and the city, alleging gross negligence during a pursuit-related crash. In its ruling, the court found law enforcement officers’ liability in a pursuit is only applicable if the plaintiff is able to prove gross negligence, defined as "wanton conduct done with conscious or reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others." The court found it "implausible" that the officers' conduct rose to that level, even though the driver increased speed because of the pursuit.

"That's a difficult burden to make," Dickinson said. "In situations like this, where it impacts an individual so specifically, the law should allow some recourse."

The attorneys believe the court's interpretation creates a high bar that gives officers too much leeway, enabling them to pursue almost any driver, even if it violates department policy, with minimal repercussions.

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Credit: WCNC Charlotte

"The difficulty in bringing cases on behalf of innocent victims of police pursuits is that the law severely limits our ability to make claims against CMPD for what they did on the day that caused Brittany's death," Dickinson said. "I would like to see it be more open to victims of poor police decisions having greater rights to have their cases heard and letting jurors decide whether or not the police acted improperly or not. It's not about money, it's about getting answers. It's about holding those who are responsible accountable for their actions. In this case, I see multiple parties that need to be held accountable."

Mauney and Dickinson’s push for change in the law isn’t unprecedented. In 2019, the Kentucky Supreme Court ruled officers whose negligence in pursuits that harm innocent bystanders could be held liable for damages.

Dickinson and Mauney acknowledge the driver should've just pulled over, but they believe the city is liable too. However, the lawyers said winning a civil suit is nearly impossible.

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

"People are being harmed because (the law) essentially allows police to engage in a chase, even if it violated city policy," Mauney said. "The city and police don’t bear any responsibility as it sits right now. There needs to be responsibility, in that if the police do something they’re not supposed to do, where if they engage in a chase in a populated place, we don’t think that’s good policy or good law. It’s why I became an attorney to change things that are unjust."

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Credit: North Carolina General Assembly
Sen. Toby Fitch

State Sen. Toby Fitch (D), NC-4, a retired judge, said he wants a criminal reform committee to look at the pursuit problem.

"I'm sure that people getting together of good mind can come to a conclusion that would make good sense as to how you handle these types of situations. The problem has been, in my opinion, is that we haven't discussed the issue," Fitch told WCNC Charlotte. "I think there's action that needs to be taken. I am interested and willing to sit down and make this an issue ... I'm just not that sure that same will exists for everybody."

Fitch said he thinks the gross negligence standard is among the issues lawmakers need to review.

"Qualified immunity has always been a problem," he said.

WCNC Charlotte analyzed the most recently available federal data and found North Carolina recorded at least 16 fatal pursuit crashes in 2020, a 24-year high, tied for seventh nationwide. In the last week alone, WCNC Charlotte has documented four pursuits in and around Charlotte in addition to the January rush hour pursuit on Statesville Road.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Fraternal Order of Police responded to WCNC Charlotte's story with a statement regarding Fitch's statement about qualified immunity. 

"As an elected official, Senator Fitch also shares the privilege of similar immunity, which exists for the sole purpose of allowing officials to do their jobs without fear of being continually sued and harassed," the statement says in part.

"Every day is definitely a battle," Norward said. "In a way, you can say I'm not the same, but it could be worse."

Webb's family lives that reality.

"Sitting at the door, waiting for your child to come in. There's no more of that," her father Keith Webb said.

CMPD suspended the two officers involved without pay for at least three weeks, personnel records reveal. When asked generally, if CMPD feels responsible when innocent people die as a consequence of police pursuits, a spokesperson said the question is better suited for somebody above his rank.

"CMPD's primary objective is to preserve life and save lives," Lt. Steve Fischbach said. "Any life lost is felt by CMPD and its officers."

Credit: North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police

Chief Damon Williams is president of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police. He said departments across the state are looking for ways to reduce deadly pursuits in the future.

"My children and my wife, my loved ones are on these same roads and so police officers, our real goal is to never cause any harm. Does that happen? It does," Williams said. "I put this badge on every morning and I put it on with the hopes that I help, not hurt."

He said the question of justice is better answered by the families impacted.

"It's a tragedy all around," he said. "What does justice look like? I don't know that I can answer that question specifically."

Credit: WCNC Charlotte

Webb's family wants her story told.

"It's important for people to know what happened to her," her sister Brianna Webb said. "She was taken from us."

"I just told my daughter from my heart, 'I'm going to fight for you,'" her father said.

Aaron Norward is demanding accountability too.

"It got to be handled better than this," he said. "Do a better job and be accountable for what you did or what you do and don't do nothing to harm innocent bystanders."

The local chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police criticized WCNC Charlotte's reporting Thursday. In a statement, the organization maintained police bear no civil responsibility when a driver runs from a traffic stop and police pursuit, crashes and kills someone.

"It is obvious Charlotte has deep pockets and attorneys want their cut of the pie; they know they're facing a huge payout if they win a lawsuit against a municipality, and who better to sue than the police department," the statement said in part.

Contact Nate Morabito at nmorabito@wcnc.com and follow him on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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