Last week, a Philadelphia Common Pleas jury awarded $744,000 to the estate
of Raquelle Burnett, a woman who was killed during a dangerous police
chase. The plaintiffs were represented by Ruben Honik of Golomb &
Honik, P.C. According to Honik, this case represents the first police
chase verdict handed down in Pennsylvania since
County of Sacramento v. Lewis—which is the 1998 U.S. Supreme Court decision that established a “shocks
of conscience” standard for evaluating police pursuits.
Even under the higher standard set forth by
County of Sacramento v. Lewis, “we were successful in proving that a lieutenant of the Philadelphia
Police Department intended harm,” explained Honik. Although the
City of Philadelphia Law Department disagrees with the verdict, Honik
still intends to file post-trial motions to increase the verdict amount—which
was limited to economic loss. Honik originally sought $1.2 million in
economic damages plus pain and suffering on behalf of the victim’s estate.
The incident occurred on January 12, 1998, after a briefcase was stolen
from Officer J.B.’s unlocked police car. The police conducted a
door-to-door investigation, which eventually led them to believe that
the culprit was 16-year-old J.R. Neighbors saw J.R. driving around near
the scene of the theft with 17-year-old J.D. in the passenger seat. Around
9 p.m., police visited J.D.’s mother, who helped them get in touch
with her daughter. J.D. agreed to direct J.R. to an intersection where
the police were waiting.
Before the two could reach the rendezvous point, police began chasing their
vehicle. Four police vehicles followed J.R. as he headed south on I-95,
attempting to surround his truck. Officer J.B. struck the rear driver’s
side of the suspect’s truck with his car, spinning them 180 degrees.
The suspects began driving north in the southbound emergency lane before
they eventually swerved into oncoming traffic. They struck the vehicle
in which Raquelle Burnett was a passenger, killing her and injuring the driver.
The case was brought to Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, and it took the
jury less than two hours to return a unanimous verdict. Before reaching
their decision, they only asked one question: “What is the largest
amount that the jury could award?” The answer, and verdict, was
$744,000. According to Honik, “it resonated [with the jury] that
the police were abusing their authority to pursue a personal motive.”