Coxwell & Associates Secures $500,000 Judgement For Clients

A judge has ruled that a then-Jackson police officer showed “reckless disregard” for the safety of others when in 2005 he ran a traffic light in his speeding patrol car and crashed into the vehicle of Desmonde Harris, killing him.

Hinds County Circuit Judge Swan Yerger said Jeffery Middleton was acting in his scope as a JPD officer when the crash occurred, and that, therefore, the city is liable. He awarded the maximum $500,000 that can be assessed against a government entity under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act.

“Officer Middleton knew that anyone crossing traffic at the subject intersection would have little or no opportunity to avoid collision, given his speed, the time of night and that he proceeded against a red light,” Yerger said in his decision this week.

“Since he was acting in the course and scope of his employment during these events, the city of Jackson is liable for all injuries and damages proximately resulting from this accident,” the judge ruled.

The city is expected to appeal.

Middleton, who left the police force after the crash on Mississippi 18, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Yerger heard testimony in December during a two-day trial of a wrongful-death civil suit filed by Harris’ parents, Edna and James Harris of Jackson.
Chuck Mullins, one of the Harrises’ attorneys, said nothing will take the place of the son his clients lost, but Yerger’s decision is a proper ending to the case.
Judges, rather than juries, hear tort claims against government bodies.
Edna Harris said on Thursday that’s she’s pleased with the ruling, but it doesn’t change the fact that she was cheated out of her son’s life and possible grandchildren.
“It will always be hard,” she said.

In March 2007, Middleton, then 29, pleaded guilty to culpable negligent vehicular manslaughter in the death of the 23-year-old Harris, but Hinds County Circuit Judge Bobby DeLaughter later dismissed the charge after Middleton completed a probationary period.
The city of Jackson tried to distance itself from Middleton’s actions the night of June 11, 2005.
Assistant City Attorney Pieter Teeuwissen, who represented the city, argued the city was prohibited by law from paying the Harris family’s claim because Middleton wasn’t acting in the scope of his employment by committing a criminal offense.

Teeuwissen cited state code that says, “an employee shall not be considered as acting within the course and scope of his employment and a governmental entity shall not be liable or be considered to have waived immunity for any conduct of its employee if the employee’s conduct constituted fraud, malice, libel, slander, defamation or any criminal offense.”
Although it has been wiped from Middleton’s record, he pleaded guilty to a criminal offense, Teeuwissen has said.

But Yerger said the Mississippi Tort Claims Act specifically mentions traffic violations as an exception to criminal offense conduct, which removes an employee from the course and scope of his employment.

Yerger said state law provides immunity for actions or omissions of a police officer while performing his police-related duties unless he acts with reckless disregard for the safety and well being of any person not engaged in criminal activity at the time of injury.
Only Middleton testified in December that the traffic light was green when he entered the intersection.

A Jackson Police Department internal affairs investigation concluded Middleton acted recklessly and negligently by driving at an excessive speed. The report also cited what several witnesses told police. Middleton left the department after the internal affairs investigation was complete.
A JPD officer who investigated the crash said Middleton’s pre-impact speed was 99 mph and the impact speed was 87 mph.

Middleton, a Jackson police officer since 2003, was working a 2-10 p.m. shift. After dropping a prisoner off at the Hinds County Detention Center in Raymond, he headed north on Mississippi 18 near Siwell Road, according to witnesses’ statements.

At the same time, around 10:44 p.m., Harris was heading in the opposite direction. Harris, driving a 2000 Pontiac Grand Am, tried to turn left onto Siwell when witnesses said Middleton ran the red light and crashed into Harris’ vehicle.

Harris was a Jackson barber apprentice. He and a sister, a cosmetologist, had discussed opening their own business together.

When DeLaughter took Middleton’s plea, he placed him on two years’ probation and withheld adjudication of the case. Withholding adjudication meant that if Middleton stayed out of trouble while on probation, the judge could, in effect, undo his guilty plea.

In July, Circuit Judge L. Breland Hilburn, who has assumed DeLaughter’s criminal docket, signed an order that Middleton had successfully completed probation and dismissed the charge.
DeLaughter is temporarily suspended from the bench until the outcome of judicial complaints filed against him are resolved.

It has been reported that the Middleton case has been added to the complaints against DeLaughter.

Coxwell & Associates attorneys Chuck Mullins and Kevin White handled the case. If you have a serious personal injury in Jackson, Hinds County, Mississippi, contact Coxwell & Associates.

Disclaimer: This blog is intended as general information purposes only, and is not a substitute for legal advice. Anyone with a legal problem should consult a lawyer immediately.

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