GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — The Gwinnett County Commission has approved a settlement agreement in a case of distracted driving by a police officer.
The problem is that it is not even enough to cover the cost of the victim's extensive medical bills.
Channel 2 investigative reporter Justin Gray found that many other victims involved in accidents with Georgia police officers were running up against the same brick wall.
Police departments are protected from major lawsuits for wrongdoing because of the way state law is written.
In 2019, Gwinnett County police Officer Todd Ramsey had multiple browser screens open on his onboard computer terminal, one even playing a Grand Theft Auto YouTube video, when he rear-ended Sarah Wood in rush hour traffic. He was going 68 miles an hour while she was going 6.
"Her brain injury was catastrophic," attorney Susan Witt said.
Wood was put in an induced coma for a month and still can't work more than a year after sustaining a traumatic brain injury.
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It was Ramsey's eighth at-fault automobile accident on the job. The Grand Theft Auto video was playing at the time of the crash, and Ramsey told officers at the scene that he didn't even know what car he had hit.
Last week, Wood settled her lawsuit with the county for far less than she was asking — without ever taking the case to court. The Gwinnett County Commission approved a $500,000 settlement by unanimous vote.
"We settled with Gwinnett County because we were not left with any other real option," Witt said.
Half a million dollars may seem like a lot, but it's less than the cost of Wood's medical bills, and it's unclear when she'll go back to work.
Wood's attorney, Witt, said the settlement is not significant enough to be an incentive for the county to change how they track and monitor officers' use of their onboard computers.
"You have very little consequence for the officer and very little consequences for the county here?" Gray asked Witt.
"Correct. And no real motivation for the county to make any changes," Witt said. "This event was entirely preventable, and it could easily happen again."
In 2016, Dorothy Wright and her two grandchildren were driving to church when they were killed after College Park police engaged in a high-speed chase with a car theft suspect for 14 miles.
Joi Partridge lost her two children and her mother.
"That was my whole life, basically," Partridge said. "I lost everything in one car."
Joi and her husband, Doug Partridge, said that policy change and preventing more deaths were much more important to them than money.
“Hopefully, through this lawsuit, legislation will change so a lot of families in the future won’t have to suffer through this,” Floyd Costner, the father of one of the victims, said.
A 2010 law is why these families are limited in how much money they can collect. Local governments have immunity for lawsuits.
The law waives that immunity for negligent vehicle crashes but limits the judgments to $500,000 for an individual or $700,000 for a crash, no matter how many victims are involved.
Those numbers have not gone up with inflation over the past 10 years, despite the dramatically rising cost of medical bills.
“When you have three dead people or someone who is catastrophically injured, that’s not enough,” attorney Alwyn Fredericks said. " That’s not going to cut it.”
It's not just police incidents.
"It was not my client's fault he got hit by a school bus," attorney Aaron Marks said.
His client's car was hit by a Gwinnett County school bus.
State law sets no limits on how much insurance those buses have to carry. Gwinnett County only insures them up to $100,000. The limits were put in place to prevent massive judgments involving large amounts from crippling government budgets.
“What you’re doing is endangering the people you drive around. And if your bus drivers hurt or kill other motorists, they’re out of luck,” Marks said. “And it doesn’t seem like that’s a good public policy decision to make that you are endangering others to save yourself a few dollars.”
Joi and Doug Partridge have taken their case all the way to the Georgia Court of Appeals after nearly five years of frustrating battles with lawyers and insurance companies.
They still feel pain every day for the loss of Wright, 12-year-old Cameron and 6-year-old Layla.
“It’s a game to other people, but we have lost our whole family,” Doug Partridge said. “And it’s like it’s a game to them.”
Cox Media Group