City settles with paralysis victim

Jun. 20, 2013 @ 05:31 PM

City officials agreed to a $1.9 million out-of-court settlement of a lawsuit filed against them by a man left a quadriplegic after being caught up in a Durham Police Department officer’s traffic accident.
The deal should help ensure the long-term care of Tremaine Hackney, a Southern High School graduate who can move only his head, face and partially his left shoulder.
“We were encouraged by the outcome of this case and I hope [Hackney] and his mom are too,” Senior Assistant City Attorney Kim Rehberg said of the deal signed earlier this spring. “I hope it gives them some assistance and relief.”
Hackney’s lawyer, Martin Horn, said Thursday that his clients are indeed “satisfied with the outcome.”
Their motivation in suing the city was “to cover any life’s necessities for a great kid who’s now very traumatically injured,” Horn said.
Hackney, who was 15 at the time of the April 2008 accident, was one of five people riding in a car that was T-boned by a Police Department patrol car at the intersection of South Miami Boulevard.
He was by far the most seriously injured of those involved.
The patrol car, driven by Officer Brian Mincey, was traveling over the road’s posted speed limit. Hackney and his mother, Tabatha Rigsbee, claimed Mincey was additionally negligent for having looked at his in-car computer as he approached the intersection.
City officials initially invoked a governmental-immunity defense and argued that Hackney had contributed to his problems by choosing to ride with an impaired driver, Christian Emanuel Perez Ventura, who was then 17.
But as the two sides prepared for trial, city lawyers thought better of continuing that line of argument.
While Ventura was unavailable for questioning, having apparently left the country, two of the other men who’d been in the car talked to lawyers and denied that he’d been drinking. Hackney could shed no light on the matter, lacking any memory of the accident.
Ventura was convicted of driving while impaired, but his legal culpability stemmed exclusively from being under-age. Tests indicated that he didn’t have a blood-alcohol level that exceeded the legal limit.
Put all that together, and “there was no factual evidence in the record at all to indicate that Mr. Hackney had reason to believe the driver of his car was intoxicated or had been drinking,” Rehberg said.
There additionally were “lots of questions about the investigation,” including about “the way data was gathered from” the accident scene, she said.
Those factors made it doubtful a judge would dismiss the case before trial – and city officials had little desire to try their luck with a jury that, going in, would likely be sympathetic to Hackney.
“Tremaine Hackney is a very impressive young man, his family has been through a lot, his mom has done amazing work with [him], they’re very likeable and his injuries were devastating,” Rehberg said. “It’s not something we would have wanted to take to trial.”
City officials are splitting the cost of the settlement with an insurance company.
The city was to deposit $949,018 into a pair of trust funds; the insurance company was to chip in another $745,982. The insurance company rounded out matters by paying Horn’s $250,000 fee.
The deal was the second major traffic-accident settlement for the city this spring.
Officials had previously confirmed a $2 million settlement with Reyes Abreo Gonzalez, who suffered brain damage late in 2011 after being run over by a Water Management Department truck.
Gonzalez was crossing the road in compliance with a traffic signal. City officials acknowledged the truck’s driver hadn’t seen him.