Jury Awards Maximum in First Police Chase Trial Under New Standard

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 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.”