What is with the Miami Police Department and speeding officers? Do you remember the case a few years back where a Florida Highway Patrol trooper pulled over Ofc. Fausto Lopez at gunpoint? Lopez was the Miami Police Officer who was caught speeding 53 times between September and October 2011 alone. On his fastest days, his speeds averaged between 90 and 120 mph.
This history is important because speed was obviously a factor in this case.
Antoine Lawson (some news sources spell his name as “Antwan Lawson”) is only 6 years old. Eye witnesses claim his little body was dragged underneath the carriage of the police car for at least 30-40 feet. As a trial attorney with a lot of experience dissecting car accidents, I can tell you that the speed of that police car was a major factor in causing this accident.
In today’s article, I will explain how this reality coupled with the Miami Police Department’s history for speeding, is going to equate to major liability for the City of Miami. Antoine’s family is going to collect big time.
Governmental Liability and Sovereign Immunity
When it comes to lawsuits, defendants are grouped into two main categories when it comes to holding them responsible for their actions. Those groups are 1) the Government, and 2) everyone else.
When it comes to the Government, there is a legal protection called “sovereign immunity”. In a nutshell, sovereign immunity protects the government from being sued. The purpose of this rule is to protect public money. Since all of the government’s money comes from taxes, the law considers a lawsuit against the government to be a lawsuit against the people. In order to minimize the financial burden of governmental liability on the public, Florida law limits the amount of money a claimant may get from the government.
However, there are exceptions.
In a traditional car accident case against a government actor, like the police department, sovereign immunity would act as a barrier to compensation.
However, this case is very different because it presents a Civil Rights claim and can be brought in Federal Court.
In order to bring a Civil Rights action against the government, the claimant must show that the government had a policy, procedure, or custom in place that served to violate a person’s Civil Rights.
For example, if the government made hiring decisions based on race or sexual orientation, a person in the effected class of people would be able to bring a claim against the government for violating his/her right to be fairly considered for employment.
The same can be and is often times said when it comes to instances of police brutality – such as in cases where certain departments have a culture of extreme and repeated violence.
In this case, the City of Miami has a serious problem because its police department has a lengthy and well known problem with speeding officers. The facts speak for themselves and it is clear they have not done enough to enforce procedures to prevent police speeding.
People who live on the street where Antoine was hit are demanding answers and they are demanding change.
The police department’s culture of permissiveness when it comes to speeding is very easy to prove because every police car supposedly has a GPS tracker that records vehicle speeds. A public records request for this information or a court order from a judge during a lawsuit would compel the City of Miami to turn over these records for all of its patrol cars.
If the City of Miami responded by saying they don’t have those records, then it is easy to attack them because keeping these records is easy, it is affordable, and it would be the best tool for enforcing safe driving. In fact, without GPS, there is little a police department can do to check on its officers and how they drive – thus a failure to make and maintain these records is tantamount to turning their cheek and looking the other way while knowing a serious problem is taking place right under their noses.
Additionally, it would be very interesting to take depositions of key people in the police department, such as internal affairs, to determine how often police cars are checked for their speed records, how often employees are disciplined for speeding, and what the penalties for speeding are, especially for repeat or extreme offenders, like Ofc. Fausto Lopez.
How often are Miami cops made to feel like someone is watching over how fast they are driving? What are the consequences when they get caught? How likely is it for a Miami officer to get caught speeding by the Department?
At its surface, this case appears to be about a boy’s tragic car accident. In reality, it is about mismanagement, bad policies, and a failure to properly supervise employees – which resulted in a violation of Antoine Lawson’s Civil Rights (namely, his right to not be run over and dragged down the street).
In plain English, the Miami Police Department’s failure to enforce the speed laws amongst its employees has created a culture of unfettered speeding cops. This culture is what resulted in little Antoine Lawson being hit.
Lets also keep in mind one other very important fact – the police officer at issue in this case was NOT responding to an emergency call, his red and blue lights were not on, nor was his siren. If he was responding to an emergency call with lights and sirens blaring, at last it could be said that he would not be breaking the law by speeding.
City of Miami Has Little Options
If I represented Antoine in this case, I would absolutely crush the City of Miami.
I would given them two choices: 1) Pay my client $2 million dollars plus medical expenses up front (as in now); or 2) Face my investigation into a culture of speeding cops, mismanagement of employee supervision, and their failure to enforce policies designed to make sure speeding cops don’t kill citizens.
My best case scenario would be one where the City refuses to settle up front and also claims the records of police vehicle speed either don’t exist, have never been kept, or are lost.
Digging in and hiding would only prove how bad the problem is.
Antoine Lawson’s Options
As for Antoine Lawson and his mom, Janet Martinez, the most important thing is to focus on healing and getting better. Witnesses claim Antoine was trapped underneath the police car and was found bleeding from his mouth once rescued. At a minimum, this poor kid has suffered a broken hip, internal bleeding, a lacerated liver, a lacerated spleen, and a broken leg.
I have zero doubt in my mind that he also has neurological injuries as well, not to mention the massive emotional toll this will put on him and his family as he suffers through medical treatment, rehabilitation and a long, long painful recovery.
Meanwhile, Antoine and his mom absolutely have got to hire an aggressive trial attorney. Not one of these billboard lawyers or Power96 attorneys with moronic commercials that make them sound like losers from a trashy night club on South Beach. They need a litigator who will go toe to toe with the City of Miami and not be afraid to hold them accountable.
If the City of Miami and the Miami Police Department have true leaders, they will bite the bullet by compensating this family with big numbers and fast checks and by instituting a zero tolerance policy at the Miami Police Department. That is how you say you are sorry and are going to fix things…