Thurston County has agreed to pay $2.375 million to the family of an Elma man who died after a 2006 crash that occurred as an off-duty Thurston County sheriff's deputy pursued another vehicle onto Interstate 5.
The county’s attorney in the suit, John Justice, confirmed Tuesday that the county settled the case rather than take it to trial, because if a jury believed that the deputy’s actions contributed even minimally to the crash that resulted in the man’s death, the county would be responsible for 100 percent of the damages he and his family suffered.
“The risk of going to trial was significant,” Justice said.
Justice explained that under Washington law, a “fault-free” plaintiff would be entitled to 100 percent of damages from any liable party.
A car that off-duty sheriff’s deputy Jason Casebolt was following on June 15, 2006, “steered erractically from lane to lane and back several times” on I-5, and wound up colliding with a third vehicle, a red 1990 Geo Metro being driven by Michael Wynn of Elma, court papers state.
Wynn, in his mid-20s at the time of the crash, suffered a spinal neck injury and became a quadraplegic. He received plastic surgery to his eye socket and was placed on a ventilator, but died from his injuries on Dec. 1, 2006, court papers state. Wynn’s attorney, Tom West of Tacoma, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Wynn’s then-1-year-old daughter after the crash.
West’s civil wrongful death complaint states that Casebolt and the driver of the vehicle he was following, Otto Messmer, “negligently, wantonly and/or intentionally operated their vehicles in such a manner as to cause a collision.” Casebolt was driving a personal vehicle, a Ford F-350 pickup, at the time he was following Messmer, West said. The lawsuit argues that Casebolt “was acting within the scope of his employment” as a law enforcement officer at the time of the crash.
An attorney who represented the county in the lawsuit argued Tuesday that even though Casebolt followed Messmer, his actions did not meet the legal definition of a law enforcement pursuit.
Messmer, 28, now faces a vehicular homicide charge for his role in the crash, according to court papers filed Aug. 9.
Charges were initially filed against Messmer in 2006, then were dismissed without prejudice. Messmer’s pending vehicular homicide charge was not refiled until August of this year. Andrew Toynbee of the Thurston County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office said Tuesday that the delay in refiling the criminal charge against Messmer had nothing to do with the civil lawsuit against the county that was recently settled.
The State Patrol did not return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment on why it took so long to refile the charge against Messmer.
Messmer had two central nervous system depressants, Topiramate and Citalopram, in his bloodstream at the time of the crash, according to the probable cause statement in support of the vehicular homicide charge against him.
According to a summary of deposition testimony that was given during the litigation against the county and provided by West:
• Casebolt first noticed Messmer’s Honda Civic after it cut him off in a roundabout on Marvin Road, according to Casebolt’s deposition statement. Casebolt said he then witnessed the Honda nearly hit a vehicle at a second roundabout. Casebolt said in the deposition that he wanted to identify the driver for the purpose of citing him for “at least negligent driving.”
• Casebolt said in his deposition that Messmer’s vehicle cut in front of his truck on I-5, and was behind Wynn’s Geo, “with less than a foot of space between each vehicle.
“Finally, Casebolt alleges that Messmer drifted all the way across the freeway, past the fog line into the shoulder of the freeway and then shot back across the freeway to make contact with Wynn’s vehicle.”
Messmer disputes Casebolt’s version of how the crash occurred, and alleges in his deposition that Casebolt’s truck bumped him slightly from behind before the crash. Justice, the county’s attorney in the suit, said Tuesday that State Patrol investigators found no evidence Casebolt’s pickup touched Messmer’s Honda.
• Casebolt, who called 911 and gave his call number to dispatchers as he followed Messmer, left the scene after Messmer’s vehicle struck Wynn’s car.
According to Justice, Casebolt’s two children, ages 5 and 10, were in his pickup with him at the time of the collision, and because Casebolt knew that the State Patrol was en route to the scene, he elected to leave rather than leave his children unattended alongside I-5. Justice said Casebolt was unaware that Wynn was seriously injured in the collision.
Messmer’s insurer paid Wynn’s estate $50,000 under the settlement agreement, and a private insurer paid $25,000, Justice added.
West said Tuesday that from the information his hired experts provided him in depositions, it is clear that Casebolt either did not follow the Sheriff’s Office’s standards for off-duty officer activities following drivers, or those standards were overly broad and “did not give sufficient guidance.”
Thurston County Sheriff Dan Kimball said Tuesday, “Detective Casebolt, from our investigation, did not violate Sheriff’s Office policy. You can always get experts to testify to the other side of the coin. Beyond that, I’ll let the settlement speak for itself. It’s a tragedy, we all recognize that.”
Casebolt, who is now one of the Sheriff’s Office’s detectives for the Thurston County Narcotics Task Force, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465