Fallen Chattanooga police officer's family seeks to add city, restaurant to wrongful death lawsuit

Janet Hinds is led into a courtroom for a preliminary hearing before Judge Alex McVeagh at the Hamilton County-Chattanooga Courts Building on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Judge McVeagh bound charges against Hinds in the Feb. 23 hit-and-run death of Chattanooga Police Officer Nicholas Galinger over to a grand jury.

Attorneys for the family of fallen Chattanooga police officer Nicholas Galinger have asked a judge for permission to add the city of Chattanooga and the restaurant at which Janet Hinds - the woman charged with killing Galinger - drank alcohol as defendants in a wrongful death lawsuit.

Galinger, 38, was struck by a car on Feb. 23, 2019, while inspecting a manhole cover that had water flowing from it in the 2900 block of Hamill Road just after 11 p.m. The driver fled the scene.

The lawsuit was originally filed by attorney Ben Rose on behalf of Galinger's family in March 2019, just under a month after his death. Though separate, the suit is related to the criminal case against Hinds, who faces 10 charges, including vehicular homicide by intoxication, driving under the influence, leaving the scene of an accident with death, reckless driving, failure to maintain lane and failure to render aid.

If a judge grants the motion to amend the complaint, the new suit would ask for $25 million in damages and accuse Hinds, the restaurant Farm to Fork and the city of negligence. It also alleges Galinger's field training officer was negligent in allegedly not taking any precautionary measures while inspecting the flooded manhole cover.

The city and police department both declined to comment citing the pending litigation. Owners of Farm to Fork declined to comment.

The proposed suit recounts most of what has been alleged during the criminal proceedings: Hinds drank 76 ounces of beer and one shot of vodka over the course of three-and-a-half hours at the Farm to Fork restaurant in Ringgold, Georgia. She started driving back home to Hixson around 10:33 p.m. and struck Galinger just over 30 minutes later. She didn't turn herself in to authorities until nearly 48 hours later.

In the proposed suit, Rose argues Farm to Fork should be held accountable for continuing to serve alcohol to Hinds when servers knew, or should have known, that she was "noticeably intoxicated." Though, restaurant employees have testified in criminal court that Hinds showed no signs of impairment.

Rose also claims the city knew about the risks posed by the overflowing manhole because, almost exactly one year earlier, the city had paid "a substantial amount of money" to one driver who allegedly hit the manhole after a heavy rain dislodged its cover.

Also, the city had already been to the site to place an A-frame warning sign on the side of the road next to the manhole. The Public Works department had been alerted to the overflow on Feb. 20, 2019, the Times Free Press previously reported, but agency spokesperson Colline Miller said it wasn't a risk to drivers traveling on the road at the time.

The day of the crash, a Public Works crew member was alerted to a missing lid on the manhole and went to inspect the scene. The lid was attached by a hinge and not missing but slightly off-center due to the "amount of water exiting the manhole," Miller previously said. The crew member slid the lid back into place and moved the A-frame barricade from the side of the road and placed it straddling the manhole lid.

That sign was then photographed by a local resident just minutes prior to the incident, the Times Free Press previously reported. But by that time, only the A-frame wooden structure was left and not the sign itself. It had fallen into the water, the resident claimed.

Why are civil suits put on hold?

Civil lawsuits are sometimes put on hold as criminal cases play out in an effort to protect the defendant’s constitutional right against self-incrimination.In a civil proceeding, Hinds could be deposed under oath and asked questions about the fatal incident. If that happened, she could assert her Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. But that could hurt her in the civil case because, while juries in criminal cases aren’t allowed to consider a defendant’s failure to testify as evidence of guilt, juries in civil cases are permitted to draw their own conclusions based on a refusal to testify.Ultimately, a judge decides whether the risk of a defendant’s potential self-incrimination outweighs a lawsuit moving forward.

It wasn't until "[s]everal days after the incident" that city employees "re-welded a chain to secure the manhole cover on Hamill Road," the proposed suit claims. "In doing so, they closed an entire lane of Hamill Road and instituted flagging operations for safety."

Rose also puts blame on Galinger's field training officer. He claims the officer was negligent in not turning on his patrol vehicle's flashing blue lights, not cordoning off the area or taking any other precautionary measures.

A hearing will be held next month, but if the defendants don't file a response, the motion could be granted without a hearing.

In the meantime, the suit has been partially put on hold until Hinds' criminal case is resolved. Civil suits are sometimes put on hold as criminal cases play out in an effort to protect the defendant's constitutional right against self-incrimination.

The hold does not apply to parties not named in the lawsuit, though, and the order specifically states that it doesn't apply to Farm to Fork. But now that the restaurant could be added as a defendant, it's not clear if the exemption would still stand.

A Sept. 29 trial date has been set in the criminal case.

Contact Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327 with tips or story ideas. Follow her on Twitter @Hughes Rosana.