Driver Rear-Ended by Officer Receives $1 Million

On June 12, 2018, a unanimous opinion by a panel of North Carolina’s full Industrial Commission affirmed a lower court’s award of $1,000,000 in favor of a man who was seriously injured when he was struck by a speeding North Carolina Highway patrol officer in Halifax County.

On May 13, 2013, just outside the town of Roanoke Rapids, Wilson Jarrell was traveling west on Highway 158 toward his nearby home.  Mr. Jarrell, who had lived in this neighborhood just outside the city of Roanoke Rapids his entire adult life, had just finished mowing the lawn of a local business on his small John Deer tractor.  Mr. Jarrell finished mowing the lawn and headed west back toward his home, as he often did in this area.

As Mr. Jarrell was heading west, he pulled over to let several fire trucks pass him on the highway.  Unbeknownst to Mr. Jarrell, a small car accident had occurred just up the road and the local volunteer fire department was responding.  At about the same time that the fire trucks passed Mr. Jarrell, four members of the North Carolina Highway Patrol were conducting a routine license check point several miles away near Everett School Road.  Having heard mention of the car accident over their radios, they decided to voluntarily respond.  As the troopers made their way to where they thought the accident was, they came to know its exact location through a radio call from another trooper already on the scene.

As soon as they heard the new location, which was only a mile from where they were on Highway 158, Trooper Alston Lucas, a new member of the highway patrol at the time, performed a u-turn on Highway 158 and began speeding toward the location of the wreck.  Trooper Luca accelerated his patrol car to speeds of at least 97 miles per hour in both a 45 mph and 55 mph rural highway.  Unfortunately for Mr. Jarrell, who was still headed west on his way home and nearly to his driveway, Trooper Lucas violently crashed into the rear of Mr. Jarrell’s tractor.  Mr. Jarrell’s body was ejected from the tractor and ultimately came to rest in a ditch off the roadway.  He suffered terrible, permanent injuries, including multiple fractures of his ribs and spine, internal bleeding, and a traumatic brain injury.

Mr. Jarrell brought claims against Trooper Lucas and the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, which is the state agency that oversees the North Carolina Highway Patrol. In North Carolina, when a member of a state agency is responsible for harming a member of the public during the operation of his or her duties, North Carolina law requires that such claims be brought under the State Tort Claim Act.  Under the State Tort Claim Act, the North Carolina Industrial Commission serves as the court of record and jurisdiction for all such claims.  Our attorneys successfully pursued claims against the trooper and the department. On July 27, 2017, the North Carolina Industrial Commission, following two separate trials in the matter, awarded Mr. Jarrell the statutory maximum of $1,000,000 in damages as a result of the incident.

The award was immediately appealed by the North Carolina Attorney General’s office, who represented the trooper and the Department of Public Safety in the case.  On June 12, 2018, a panel of the North Carolina Full Commission affirmed in all respects the decision and award of the lower court, finding the trooper’s excessive speed and reaction that day amounting to both negligence and gross negligence and affirming the statutory maximum award to Mr. Jarrell of $1,000,000.  Mr. Jarrell was represented by Hunt Willis and Steven Corriveau.

Hunt noted, “Mr. Jarrell suffered devastating injuries and he is lucky to be alive.  Our law enforcement officers do great and thankless work all across our state, but this case highlights the importance of following the safety protocols and department policies that are in place for a reason, which is to keep the public safe.  It’s our hope that this incident can serve as a teaching point and learning experience for the Trooper, and that it highlights the importance of following department guidelines when deciding to conduct dangerous patrol vehicle operations.”

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