published Saturday, November 12th, 2011

Hamilton County Circuit Court ruling in police chase suit expected

A Hamilton County Circuit Court judge is expected to rule next week on a lawsuit filed 10 years ago by a man struck by a suspect's vehicle during a Chattanooga police pursuit.

John P. Abrell, 46, testified Friday that he came to a stop at the intersection of Amnicola Highway and Wisdom Street when returning home from work on Aug. 9, 2000.

Chattanooga police were chasing a stolen black Honda Accord driven by Charles A. Robinson, who was 23 at the time. The stolen vehicle reached speeds of about 100 mph during the 95-second pursuit, then slammed into the rear of Abrell's vehicle.

Abrell spent seven days at Erlanger hospital. He had a slight concussion and had no surgery, according to court testimony.

Since the crash, he testified, he has been in chronic pain and must take oxycodone and morphine daily. He filed the lawsuit in August 2001 and is seeking damages of up to $130,000 from the city.

He blames the crash for most of his pain although he has had other accidents. A 1998 work accident at industrial cleaning company CH Heist injured his legs, he testified. In June 2008, he was struck by a vehicle and thrown about a foot, he said.

In 2000, the Chattanooga Police Department's policy to pursue a vehicle meant having probable cause for an arrest and weighing external factors such as traffic and road conditions.

Since then, the policy has been modified and officers now pursue a vehicle if the driver is suspected of committing a violent felony or is suspected of DUI.

Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said he may modify the current policy by removing the portion on pursuing drunk drivers.

"It's just not worth it for safety reasons," he said.

Andrew Hilton was the Chattanooga officer involved in the high-speed chase.

Hilton, who now works for the U.S. Department of Energy, testified Friday he had worked as a city patrol officer for seven years at the time of the chase. He said he had been involved in about 20 pursuits, half of which were at high speeds.

Hilton said he was beginning his shift on Aug. 9, 2000, when he pulled behind a vehicle that resembled one stolen from Brainerd Road the day before. Hilton hit his emergency lights and sirens and the driver turned the car around and ran a light, heading south back on Amnicola with Hilton trailing behind about 200 yards.

At a second red light, the Honda slammed into Abrell's vehicle in the left lane, spinning it 180 degrees. After the collision, Robinson and two other people exited the vehicle.

Robinson pleaded guilty to reckless endangerment, evading arrest, theft of property, aggravated assault for causing the crash, resisting stop and altering the vehicle identification number on the vehicle. He received up to three years as a sentence for one of the charges.

An internal investigation exonerated Hilton from responsibility for the crash, stating he followed the department's procedures.

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