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To avoid jury trial, St. Petersburg council approves $165,000 settlement

ST. PETERSBURG — The city seemed on solid ground in defending the actions of a police officer who killed a pedestrian while driving to a possible crime scene last year.

Officer Steven J. Pugh was cleared of any wrongdoing in the department's investigation of the June 12, 2009, crash. The same investigation concluded that the pedestrian, Terry Barnes, put himself in danger by darting into oncoming traffic and might have been impaired.

Still, the City Council has decided to avoid a jury trial and pay the Barnes family $165,000, a settlement relatives recently accepted.

The payout shows the vulnerabilities cities face when exposed to a civil lawsuit, said council members.

"It's a jury trial," said council member Karl Nurse. "Juries always look for the deep pockets, and in this case it's the city."

At the time of the crash, Barnes had an unborn son. He also left behind two grieving parents. That would have been a tough combination to beat in court, said assistant city attorney Joe Patner.

"I'd be a billionaire if I could predict what juries do," Patner said. "But I have a case of an unborn child, and the plaintiff would say he'd never have a chance to hug his father. You can imagine the emotional pull that would have on a jury."

The cap on damages the city would have to pay is limited to $200,000. But surviving family members could file a wrongful death claim with the Florida Legislature that could increase the damages past $1 million, Patner said.

Patner concedes that the Legislature, no friend of trial attorneys, rarely approves claim bills. He said it was a risk he and the council wanted to avoid.

"We tried to make a decision that was financially prudent, given the circumstances of the case and what the jury would likely do," Patner said.

Pugh was arrested on a DUI charge in 2007, but Patner said that was not a factor in determining the settlement.

The charge stemmed from a night in February 2007 when Pugh was found asleep in his parked truck outside a Gulfport bar. The truck's headlights were on and his foot was on the brake. He failed a sobriety test and was taken to jail. The state dropped the DUI charge when prosecutors determined there had been no intent to operate the vehicle.

Patner said that even if the Barnes' case had gone to trial, a jury would not have been allowed to hear about the officer's DUI charge.

During the investigation into Barnes' death, investigators spoke with a security guard at the Mosley Motel on 34th Street N who said Barnes had been arguing with his roommate.

The roommate was drunk and Barnes, who was 24, was trying to settle him down, the report stated. Moments later, the guard saw Barnes dash toward 34th Street. Seconds later, he heard the crash.

Pugh, 49, told officers that he was heading south on 34th Street in the curb lane about 11 p.m. He was responding to a series of shots fired in Childs Park and was driving about 50 mph in a 35 mph zone. He wasn't flashing his blue emergency lights, which isn't required by policy. Shortly after passing Dartmouth Avenue, Pugh saw a blur coming toward the car from the left, realizing it was a pedestrian wearing dark clothing.

Instead of slamming on the brakes, Pugh swerved to the left to drive behind Barnes. It was too late, however, and the vehicle's right front side struck Barnes so hard it jerked him out of his shoes and into the air. Barnes died six days later at Bayfront Medical Center without making a statement about the crash.

A traffic homicide investigation by St. Petersburg police concluded that Barnes had run into oncoming traffic.

"Barnes placed himself in danger and did not give the approaching vehicles enough time to react to his presence," the report stated.

It also said there was the possibility Barnes was impaired. It stated he had a blood-alcohol level of 0.012, which is far below the threshold of 0.08 that presumes impairment. But the blood sample was taken from Barnes after he lost blood at the scene, the report stated. Medics administered 2 liters of saline fluid into him later.

"A very reasonable assumption can be made that the sample taken from Barnes and tested would have been substantially 'diluted' and that his blood-alcohol level would have been higher at the time of the crash," the report stated.

But Patner, the city's attorney handling the case, said the jury could consider only his measured blood-alcohol level, which equated to less than one beer.

"There's not one expert in the world who would say there's impairment after one drink," Patner said. The conclusion of the accident report was inadmissible. A jury could only consider the facts, which included that Pugh was traveling 15 mph faster than the speed limit.

"There's some fault with both parties," said council member Jeff Danner. "We had to weigh the sympathy factor. We're under the $200,000 cap, so one way to look at it is that we're saving money."

Staff writer Jamal Thalji contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

To avoid jury trial, St. Petersburg council approves $165,000 settlement 10/26/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 26, 2010 6:35pm]
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