Accident reconstruction experts who testified in a wrongful death trial provided differing opinions about responsibility for a 2012 traffic accident that claimed the life of an 84-year-old man in Anniston, Alabama. A lawsuit filed by William Curry’s estate claimed that a speeding police officer negligently caused the crash. Attorneys for the city argued that the accident was Curry’s fault.
Trial testimony unfolded over 5 days in Calhoun County Circuit Court. A few fundamental facts were uncontested. Officer Thomas Anthony Gassaway, who subsequently left the employment of the City of Anniston, observed a car driving at 62 mph on a street that had a 35 mph speed limit. Gassaway pursued the speeding car.
As Gassaway traveled through an intersection, he collided with Curry’s car. Curry died 78 days after the collision.
Most of the critical facts concerning the cause of the accident were disputed. A key issue was whether Gassaway activated his lights and siren. An Alabama law requires police officers to use their flashing lights and sirens when they exceed the speed limit while pursuing a suspect. Gassaway claimed he flipped the switch that activated the lights and that an airbag struck him as soon as he did so.
Gassaway’s testimony seemed to find support in photographs of the accident scene showing the switch for the lights and siren in the “on” position. However, none of the witnesses to the accident saw the squad car’s lights or heard its siren.
Roy Bennett, Anniston Police Department’s lead traffic homicide investigator in 2012, took the pictures. He testified that he did not touch the switch after the accident and said he had “no reason to believe” that anyone else did so.
Video from the squad car’s dash camera might have shed light on the facts surrounding the accident, but no video was available. Gassaway testified that he was “informed that during the accident, the sudden loss of power corrupted the video.” The conveniently erased video, combined with evidence that the squad car’s lights and siren did not activate even though the switch was in the “on” position, may have caused the jury to doubt the credibility of the city’s accident investigation.
In addition to eyewitnesses, lawyers for the Curry estate relied on the expert testimony of Georgia State Patrol Sgt. Tommy Sturdivan, who operates an accident reconstruction business. Sturdivan used digital technology to recreate the accident scene. He gathered data from modules in each vehicle that recorded the speeds at which they were traveling.
Sturdivan testified that Curry would have had ample time to cross the intersection if Gassaway had been driving at the speed limit. According to Sturdivan, it would not have been necessary for Curry to yield to Gassaway if Gassaway had been traveling at 35 mph.
Data from the module in the squad car revealed that Gassaway was driving at 61 mph, slowing to about 50 mph as he approached the intersection. The lawyers for Curry’s estate argued that Curry had no way to know that Gassaway was traveling so fast since Gassaway neglected to activate his lights and siren when he began to chase the speeder.
Sturdivan testified that an officer’s lights and siren are meant to protect the public by providing a warning that an officer is traveling above the speed limit. Sturdivan also testified that Gassaway was exceeding the speed limit for at least 6 seconds before he entered the intersection. According to Sturdivan, that have Gassaway ample time to warn cross-traffic by activating his lights and siren.
Sturdivan questioned whether a power loss during the crash would have wiped the digital recording made by the dash cam computer. He testified that camera data is written to a hard drive and then transferred to removable storage after the lights are turned off. Even if the removable disk was blank, the data should still have been on the hard drive. When he asked to inspect the hard drive, however, he discovered that all of the recording equipment had been removed from the car. The city apparently failed to preserve that evidence for use in the trial.
Testifying as a reconstruction expert for the city, Pam Stirling told the jury that Curry caused the accident. Based on her review of the information in the module attached to Curry’s car, Stirling concluded that Curry “gunned it” (accelerated quickly) as he tried to cross the intersection. She inferred from that data that Curry saw Gassaway coming and tried to beat him across the intersection. She testified that Curry should instead have yielded to Gassaway.
Stirling acknowledged that Gassaway’s high rate of speed contributed to the severity of the crash, but she denied that it caused the crash. She also expressed the opinion that any violation of the state law requiring Gassaway to activate his lights and siren was not relevant to the accident.
Even if Curry’s negligent conduct contributed to the accident, the jury was instructed that it could overlook that negligence if Gassaway engaged in wanton behavior. The attorneys for Curry’s estate argued that Gassaway’s failure to comply with state law by activating his lights and siren before speeding constituted wanton behavior.
The city relied heavily on its expert in arguing that Gassaway was in the process of activating his lights and siren and that the accident would not have occurred if Curry had not tried to beat Gassaway across the intersection. The jury evidently found the testimony of the estate’s expert to be more persuasive. It returned a verdict in favor of Curry’s estate for $500,000.