City in court fight with paralysis victim

Jan. 24, 2013 @ 09:56 PM

City officials are prepping for a scheduled court fight with a youth who became a quadriplegic almost four years ago when a Durham police cruiser T-boned the car he was riding in.

Lawyers representing Southern High School graduate Tremaine Hackney and his mother Tabatha Rigsbee sued the city in the spring of 2011, alleging negligence on the part of city administrators and Durham Police Department Officer Brian Mincey.

Hackney, then 15, suffered a broken neck in April 2008 when Mincey’s car struck the one he was riding in at the corner of South Miami Boulevard and Laurel Drive. The injury left him able to move only his head, face and partially his left shoulder.

Court documents indicate Hackney’s subsequent medical care has cost more than $900,000.

His lawyers allege that Mincey was speeding and additionally distracted by his cruiser’s on-board computer terminal.

But city attorneys fired back in 2011, invoking a governmental-immunity defense and also arguing contributory negligence on Hackney’s part because he was riding with an impaired driver.

A 2008 Herald-Sun story on the accident indicates that Hackney was one of five people in the 1993 Mercury Cougar struck by Mincey’s patrol car.

The Mercury’s driver, Christian Emanuel Perez Ventura, who at the time was 17, stopped at a stop sign on Laurel Drive and then pulled out into the intersection, into the path of the oncoming police cruiser.

Hackney was by far the most seriously injured of those involved in the accident. Three of his fellow passengers were treated by doctors and released. Ventura and Mincey were not injured.

Ventura was charged and subsequently convicted in 2008 of driving while impaired. The N.C. Department of Correction lists him as a probation or parole absconder, perhaps stemming from an unrelated conviction in 2011 for wanton injury to personal property.

Hackney “knew or reasonably should have known” Ventura was impaired, took the risk of riding with him and thus contributed to his own injury, Senior Assistant City Attorney Kim Rehberg said in the city’s answer to the lawsuit.

The answer conceded that Mincey had been speeding, and that he’d “glanced at [his] in-car computer screen after ascertaining that the roadway ahead of him was clear of vehicular traffic.”

But Hackney’s lawyers contend that Mincey “failed to keep a proper lookout” or control his car, and that the officer had “failed to yield the right of way” to Ventura.

South Miami Boulevard has a posted 45 mph speed limit near its intersection with Laurel Drive. Hackney’s lawyers have pressed the city to admit that Mincey was traveling 62 mph, and say they have experts who will testify that the officer’s speed contributed to the crash and that he hadn’t been following proper police procedure.

Judges have scheduled the case for trial in early May. But they also insisted on a mediation attempt, setting a Feb. 15 deadline for the two sides to complete it.

City Attorney Patrick Baker has twice in recent weeks asked the City Council to meet with him in closed session to discuss the case. Such a move typically indicates a desire by officials to talk strategy, by definition including their willingness to settle out of court.

The accident happened during Hackney’s freshman year at Southern High and kept him out of school for a year and a half. Doctors eventually OKed his return to classes and he graduated last spring.