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$9.14 million verdict against Pasco Sheriff's Office for chase that went wrong

PORT RICHEY — Pasco sheriff's Deputy Kenneth Petrillo was trailing two police cars in a late-night, high-speed pursuit of a suspected drunken driver. He got on the radio and told dispatch that the suspect "just blew the red light."

And then he did the same — just as Jennifer Wohlgemuth pulled into the intersection.

Petrillo's patrol car slammed into Wohlgemuth's Honda Accord in a fiery Jan. 3, 2005, collision that sent five people to a hospital. Wohlgemuth, who had been out celebrating a friend's birthday, suffered a brain injury that leaves her unable to care for herself, attorney Frank Winkles said.

A judge ruled Friday that Petrillo was negligent in the crash, and that Wohlgemuth should receive $9.14 million in damages. State law limits such judgments against law enforcement agencies to $100,000, and the Pasco County Sheriff's Office has insurance to cover that, spokesman Kevin Doll said.

To get the rest, Wohlgemuth's attorney will have to file a special claim bill in the Florida Legislature, which can provide compensation for injuries caused by the negligence of a public officer or agency. The law limits the attorney's cut to 25 percent.

Winkles successfully navigated the process several years ago to obtain $2.5 million for a man who became paralyzed after Hillsborough County emergency medical techs transported him without securing him to a board.

He said that Wohlgemuth, now 25 and living in Holiday, faces a lifetime of expensive care. Part of her right brain was removed to reduce the dangerous swelling after the accident, he said, leaving her with no short-term memory and a loss of vision on her left side. Mentally, she is more like a 10-year-old girl, he said.

"She needs this money to be cared for for the rest of her life," Winkles said. "You don't want her to be a ward of the state."

Pasco sheriff's officials had little comment Friday about the order by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Stanley Mills, who presided over the weeklong bench trial.

The Sheriff's Office had argued that Wohlgemuth bore some, if not all, of the responsibility for her injuries because she was not wearing a seat belt. The impact sent her flying 30 to 40 feet out of the car, fracturing her skull as she landed on the pavement, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. But experts testified that her injuries would have been moderate to severe even with a seat belt.

Both sides also debated whether Wohlgemuth was impaired: She had some drinks earlier that night, but blood alcohol tests after the accident showed her well below the level for a charge of driving under the influence.

Perhaps most hotly disputed: Did Petrillo activate his siren and lights when he joined the pursuit? Petrillo, who now works for the Tampa Police Department, said in a sworn statement he believes he did.

But Winkles said a witness testified the deputy's patrol car did not have the siren and lights going. And in the taped dialogue with dispatch moments before Petrillo entered the intersection, his siren is silent.

Petrillo was not wearing his seat belt, as agency policy required. Nor did he have his supervisor's permission to join the pursuit.

Port Richey and New Port Richey police called off the chase after the 1:30 a.m. crash at Ridge Road and Regency Park Boulevard. But they had the suspect's license plate number and arrested Scott Alexander Eddins of Hudson later that day on charges of fleeing to elude, driving with a suspended license, aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, reckless driving and possession of cocaine.

The crash came just a week before Wohlgemuth planned to attend orientation at St. Petersburg College. She was a striking 5-foot-9 woman who had worked at Hooters and Wing House, Winkles said.

These days she accompanies her mother, a medical assistant at a doctor's office, to work. Then she comes home and makes jewelry, trying to busy her fingers with something beautiful.

$9.14 million verdict against Pasco Sheriff's Office for chase that went wrong 03/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 13, 2009 10:22pm]
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