OFFICER AWARDED MORE THAN $1 MILLION AFTER DETAIL INJURY COST HIM HIS CAREER
This is the real story of how a jury made an award of considerable magnitude after it heard an injured officer’s case and soundly rejected the defense’s argument--and the unfair stereotype so often perpetuated by the media--of a conniving officer using a minor injury to take an early retirement. The jury award of $850,000, together with prejudgment interest, brought a total award in excess of $1.1 million. A request by Defendant for a new trial was denied and the Defendant’s appeal of the case is proceeding through the appellate court system.
Police officers across the state should be encouraged. This jury awarded a substantial sum to an injured police officer, an important outcome given the volume of inaccurate media depictions of police officers. Additionally, the public has wrongly perceived that there is a crisis in the courts of runaway jury verdicts. This, of course, is not true. New cases filed in Massachusetts courts have continued to drop over the past 10 years, with the vast majority of jury verdicts going to defendants in civil cases. When called upon as jurors to hear legitimate and serious cases, the public often comes in biased, thanks to erroneous media reports, and rules for the defendant. Not this time.
In returning this verdict, the jury accepted these truths:
- Truth 1: A retired officer can miss the prestige of wearing the uniform, serving the public, and the camaraderie of being a member of the police department
- Truth 2: There are significant public safety concerns that a police officer must be vigilant in guarding while performing a road detail
- Truth 3: The reality of police compensation is that overtime and detail pay comprise a significant part of an officer’s annual income, without which they could not survive economically
The jury rejected these myths about police officers that are constantly repeated by the press, and which the Defendant tried to capitalize on in this trial:
- Myth 1: All officers want to get hurt and retire early
- Myth 2: Disability pensions are gravy trains for police officers
- Myth 3: All detail officers just stand around looking in a hole, and that is why this officer got hurt
After suffering a serious injury to his head on November 21, 1996, Officer Robert Holmes¹was involuntarily retired by the City on a disability pension after 21 years on the force.
On that November day, Robert Holmes was working a detail for State Communications Corp. It was cold, and the State Communications bucket van was pulled off to the side of the road, positioned about 100 yards away from the entrance to an elementary school. The busy residential street had one lane in each direction, no shoulders, and a sidewalk on one side. It was just after 7:30 a.m. and the sidewalk was busy with young children walking to school. The van had stopped at the second pole in a line with a State Communications employee tapping in new equipment from a bucket, high on the pole. The bucket operator worked alone and put no traffic cones out on the road.
Officer Holmes was standing to the rear of the van on the driver’s side, positioned parallel to the center line, so he could look left and right, keeping an eye on traffic in both directions.
Fortunately for the police officer, a local businessman on his way to drop off his children at school saw the accident from his car as he approached the rear of the van. Ahead of him, the witness observed Officer Holmes positioned to the rear of the truck directing traffic around the van. Officer Holmes testified how his attention was on the young children on the sidewalk across the street and how he was concerned about the trucks that traveled through this area. The witness observed the State Communication truck’s aerial bucket--with a steel brace on the bottom and carrying the cable employee and his tools--descend directly onto Officer Holmes’ head.
The blow to the Officer’s head caused his knees to buckle. He was observed holding his head in a state of confusion. When the eyewitness approached and called out the Officer’s name, there was no response. The officer testified everything went black. He had clearly suffered a very traumatic blow to his head, one which luckily did not crack his skull.
Unfortunately, Officer Holmes suffered the severe effects of post-concussive syndrome following the incident. Due to the residual effects of the blow to his head, neither the City’s doctor nor his own doctors would allow him to return to police duties. After a period of time, the City, based upon its own doctor’s report, submitted papers for Officer Holmes’ involuntary retirement which was eventually granted.
Contrary to popular public belief, the disability pension didn’t do any favors for the Officer. We taught the jury about how police officers are compensated and the significant sums of money in overtime and detail compensation that Officer Holmes lost while out injured on-duty. Officer Holmes didn’t make out at all. With the disability pension under Massachusetts law, Officer Holmes would lose $1 for every dollar he earned, in addition to the small amount of money he was allowed to earn in excess of the pension. Over the remainder of what should have been his career, Officer Holmes would lose several hundred thousand dollars. A vocational expert further testified that a disabled officer could not earn as much money outside of the police force because his skills are not transferrable to equal paying work.
Officer Holmes loved being a police officer. He volunteered for the police force’s Honor Guard. When a volunteer was needed, he put on the Officer McGruff costume and went out into the community to talk to children. He volunteered his own time to assist in community policing. Officer Holmes, as union president, had started a program of giving out turkeys to the needy during the holidays.
Officer Holmes’ own internist came to court and testified how, over 25 years, he came to know how stubborn Officer Holmes was about returning to work as soon as possible. Officer Holmes’ own records indicated how he was constantly among the top wage earners in the department, taking up so much extra work that at times he worked in excess of 100 hours per week.
Not only did Officer Holmes have to go to court in what appeared a clear-cut case that should have quietly resolved through settlement with State Communications’ insurance company, he suffered the indignity throughout the litigation of being portrayed as an officer who wanted to get off the force and caused his own injury. Officer Holmes and his family endured months of video surveillance conducted by State Communications or its insurance company’s investigators, further invading their privacy.
It was State Communications’ contention that Officer Holmes should have been paying attention to the bucket while it was in the air. Other City police officers came to court and testified that this was not the case; the chief objective on this particular detail would have been to position oneself to the rear of the van to deflect approaching traffic away from the bucket van. Officers on road details often set themselves up as human cones to protect the crew and vehicles behind them from approaching traffic. Finally, State Communications argued that Officer Holmes’ condition, which prevented his return to police work, pre-existed the accident. This view was rejected by Officer Holmes’ doctors and the City’s doctor.
Officer Holmes displayed the same character throughout trial as he did as a police officer. Despite being characterized unfairly, insulted, and baited, he carried himself with dignity and professionalism in answering all questions put to him.
Although he was offered $100,000 in settlement before trial--an amount the trial judge recommended he consider given the large number of defense verdicts--he rejected it. He chose instead to rely on the legal system and seek full justice.
I thank all the members of the community who came to testify, particularly the police officers, the Chief of Police, the City’s doctor, Officer Holmes’ own internist, and the City’s head of personnel. I thank Officer Holmes for the privilege of representing him. He allowed me to prove that if you are willing to go the distance and stand up for what you know is right, good people in your community will back you up; others who will sit on your jury will give you a fair shake.
Many police injury cases involve sophisticated legal issues, problems of proof, technical insurance policy coverage disputes, and issues that arise under Massachusetts General Laws c. 41 §100 and §111F and or related statutes. I handle these cases on a contingent-fee basis where the injured officer need only pay for legal services if I successfully collect money on the claim. The fee is typically one-third of the money collected. If I fail to collect money for the injured officer, the officer will owe nothing for legal services, except in some cases for out-of-pocket expenses.
¹ The officer’s name has been changed to protect his privacy. He has consented to having the facts of his case written about to help educate other officers about their rights. The name of the Defendant has also been changed. The similarity between the officer’s and or the defendant’s names with real persons living or deceased is merely coincidental and not intended.