McDONOUGH COUNTY, Il (WGEM) — Attorney John Spesia stated that on Friday the Third District Appellate Court reinstated verdicts against the McDonough County Sheriff’s Office and Officer Thomas Pledge.
The reinstatement was the result of a McDonough County jury’s finding that Officer Pledge’s reckless pursuit of a DUI suspect into the intersection of Route 67 and University Drive at speeds exceeding 100 mph caused a collision which resulted in the death of Jill Dayton and significant injury to Amanda Dayton.
The Appellate Court’s decision ruled that the trial judge, Hon. Richard Gambrell, “erred” when he overturned the jury’s verdicts and entered a judgment in favor of Officer Pledge and the McDonough County Sheriff.
The Appellate Court held that the jury’s decision was correct because there was evidence at trial that “showed that Pledge’s conduct was willful and wanton and that his pursuit of the SUV was the proximate cause of the crash that resulted in Jill’s death and Amanda’s injury.”
Spesia stated the Appellate Court found that “undisputed facts” of Officer Pledge’s willful and wanton conduct included that Pledge “had obtained the license plate number of the SUV when he initiated the stop,” “he knew there had been prior accidents at the intersection of Route 67 and University Avenue,” “he was traveling 100 to 110 miles per hour as he approached Macomb and the SUV, that had turned off its lights during the chase, was also traveling in excess of 100 miles per hour.”
Evidence of Pledge’s reckless conduct, according to the Appellate Court, also included that, “The department’s pursuit policy justified high-speed pursuit only if the violator had committed a felony involving an actual or threatened attack, and Pledge testified that the SUV had not committed a felony involving an actual or threatened attack.”
In its decision the Appellate Court also relied on the testimony of Dr. Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina, who has studied police pursuits for over 30 years and has worked for the National Institute of Justice, which helps write pursuit policies for police departments. Dr. Alpert’s testimony at trial was that Pledge’s “pursuit through an intersection was like ‘playing Russian roulette’.”
Spesia stated in reinstating the jury’s verdicts the Appellate Court reasoned that the McDonough County jury could properly have determined that “the identity of the suspect was obtainable from the license plate number without the high-speed pursuit and that the officer’s decision to pursue the vehicle into Macomb, in violation of department policy, showed an utter indifference for the safety of others.” The Appellate Court concluded that “The jury found that Pledge’s high-speed pursuit demonstrated willful and wanton behavior” and there was “no basis to disturb that determination.”
In its published decision the Appellate Court specifically rejected Judge Gambrell’s finding that there was “uncontradicted evidence” that Amanda had sufficient time to perceive and react to Pledge’s emergency vehicle. The Appellate Court noted that the McDonough County Sheriff’s own expert witness conceded that Officer Pledge “was traveling 85 miles per hour as he entered the University Drive intersection” where the speed limit was 40 miles per hour. The Appellate Court further stated that the testimony of Dr. Geoffrey Alpert was that “a normally prudent driver” like Amanda Dayton, “would not have a reasonable amount of time to perceive, react, and stop to avoid Pledge at that excessive rate of speed.”
Spesia stated in addition to reinstating the jury verdicts, the Appellate Court awarded “post-judgment interest from the date of the final judgment, March 27, 2017, to the date of satisfaction by the County. With interest, the judgment now exceeds $4.6 million. The County previously disclosed that it has $2 million in insurance coverage for the collision.
McDonough County Board Chairman George Dixon said the county is consulting with its insurance company to determine how it will pay for the judgement.
“No plan of action has been made,” said Dixon. “There is no timetable at this time.”
Dixon said the county board will have to meet in order to determine next steps.