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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Police Chase Victim Gets Settlement

Courts: Simi Valley OKs $320,000 for woman hit by teen being pursued by officers. City says it won't change its policy, which lawsuit said is flawed.

April 11, 2001|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The city of Simi Valley agreed Tuesday to pay $320,000 to a woman whose skull was fractured when a truck slammed into her vehicle during a high-speed police chase.

The settlement, authorized by the City Council during a closed session Monday night, came the day jury selection was set to begin in Shelley Padalecki's civil trial.

Her attorney, Mark Hiepler, said he believes he could have gotten a higher judgment if a jury heard the case. But Hiepler said he was concerned about the medical needs of his client, who is uninsured and unable to afford much-needed surgery.

"We could go and get a $10-million verdict," Hiepler said. "But this could go on for years. In the meantime, Shelley sits there without any hope of a future."

Padalecki, 20, who has been unable to work or go to school since the accident in April 1999, said she is glad the case is over.

"It's hard to say, but I actually am looking forward to being able to get the additional surgeries I need right away," she said through her attorney Tuesday.

City officials also believed they would have prevailed at trial but say they were concerned about the possibility of a costly verdict.

"No one can predict what a jury can do," said Steve Blades, a private Los Angeles attorney who represented the city. "While we did feel confident that we were not legally responsible for her injuries, the case had a tremendous sympathy factor."

Padalecki was driving home from a wedding reception when a truck being pursued by police crashed into her truck. Her skull was fractured and she was in a coma for two weeks.

She has undergone two major operations but needs further surgery and rehabilitation, her father said.

Her family sued the city for negligence, saying that police officers acted recklessly by speeding on city streets and through crowded intersections. The suit also alleged that the city's policy on police chases violated state law by giving officers too much discretion to decide when to pursue fleeing cars.

Simi Valley's policy, which is similar to others in Ventura County and California, states that an officer can pursue a car when a suspected criminal or traffic violator flees. But the officers must balance the seriousness of the offense with the potential dangers of pursuing.

Mayor Bill Davis said he is pleased that the money will go directly to Padalecki's medical bills rather than being spent on legal proceedings. He and other city leaders added that though they feel sympathy for Padalecki, they do not plan to change their pursuit policy.

"There was an innocent victim and the injuries were extremely bad," City Atty. David Hirsch said. "But at the same time, we have a policy that we believe meets the requirements of state law and we were prepared to go to trial on that basis."

Under state law, police departments are not liable for damages in claims arising from pursuits as long as they have guidelines for officers on when and how to conduct high-speed chases.

But Hiepler said Simi Valley's policy doesn't comply with that law because it fails to provide for adequate supervision of and limitations on officers.

The chase that injured Padalecki started when police officers tried to pull over a suspected drunk driver who did not have his headlights on. When he refused to stop, officers followed him. During the pursuit, both cars traveled at speeds higher than 100 mph. After several minutes, the 14-year-old driver crashed into a pole and then hit Padalecki's vehicle.

It was later determined that the truck was stolen and that the teen had been under the influence of drugs. He is now serving time at the California Youth Authority.

"Certainly we never want to have a tragic ending to a pursuit," said Simi Valley Police Chief Randy Adams. "But it wasn't the police that caused the injuries to Ms. Padalecki. It was the reckless driving of the drugged 14-year-old."

Robert Padalecki, who moved his family to Texas after the accident, said he hopes his daughter's tragedy will spur police officers to be more careful so the "lives of innocent citizens are not jeopardized."

Hiepler said that even though the suit did not result in any direct changes to Simi Valley's policy, he is confident that the case made the city and other municipalities reassess their police pursuit policies.

"We have forced authorities to look at this policy, which they have completely ignored for years," he said. "The debate will continue."

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