WELLS, Maine — A decision by the Maine Supreme Court on Tuesday ensures that a lawsuit brought against the town of Wells can move forward.
Last year, Tim Convery and Kelli Gustafson, both of Kennebunkport, filed a complaint in York County Superior Court against the town, alleging that its Police Department caused a collision in 2020 that resulted in their injuries. The collision followed a high-speed police chase of a suspect who had stolen a vehicle.
The town made a motion for a summary judgment on the grounds that it could not be sued because the police cruiser did not directly collide with the vehicle occupied by Convery and Gustafson. York County Superior Court denied the motion. The town appealed the decision, only to have it affirmed by the state’s Supreme Court on June 21.
On Wednesday, Attorney Taylor Asen, who is representing Convery and Gustafson, said the Maine Supreme Court had “reached the right outcome.”
“Now the case will begin in earnest,” said Asen, of the firm Gideon Asen, of New Gloucester. “Now they have to answer the complaint.”
Asen filed his clients’ complaint in March 2021. Both the complaint and a press release from the Wells, York and Kennebunk police departments provided details about the collision at the center of the case.
On the morning of May 30, 2020, Joshua Burton, 27, of Kentucky, allegedly stole a 2015 Kia Soul from the parking lot of Mr. Mike’s Convenience Store in York.
Wells police were notified the stolen vehicle was headed their way, northbound on Route 1. According to the complaint, Burton was traveling at a safe speed at the time.
The complaint states that patrol officer Joshua Poirier and Sgt. Chad Arrowsmith reported to Route 1, near Chapel Road, and waited for the Kia to pass. When Poirier spotted the vehicle, he initiated a high-risk stop. As Poirier stepped out of his vehicle, Burton sped away.
Poirier and Arrowsmith proceeded to chase Burton north on Route 1 at high speeds, according to the complaint. Burton allegedly began driving erratically, sometimes reaching speeds above 100 mph.
As Burton approached Industrial Drive in Kennebunk, traffic grew heavier. According to the complaint, Arrowsmith considered calling off the pursuit but did not actually do so.
Convery and Gustafson were traveling northbound on this stretch in Kennebunk at the time. Convery was behind the wheel, with Gustafson next to him in the passenger seat. Driving at a high speed, Burton approached them from behind, rammed into them, and sent their vehicle rolling several times before landing in a ditch, according to the complaint.
Both Convery and Gustafson suffered “serious and life-changing injuries” and considered themselves lucky to be alive after the collision, Asen said last year.
The town of Wells had a duty to ensure that its police vehicles operated in a “safe and reasonable manner,” the complaint asserts.
“The Town of Wells breached its duty by initiating a dangerous, high speed pursuit, where the benefits of doing so were outweighed by the danger to Plaintiffs and other members of the community,” the complaint reads.
Convery and Gustafson are alleging that the Wells Police Department breached its duty by failing to end the chase once Burton began driving erratically and at high speeds. They also assert that the department failed to appropriately supervise Poirier during the pursuit, failed to have policies and procedures in place for high-speed chases, and failed to train its officers to follow such policies.
The complaint says Convery suffered a broken sternum, broken ribs and a non-healing fracture in the incident, as well as severe complications secondary to spinal fusion. Gustafson suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. In addition to their injuries and emotional distress, the complaint says both plaintiffs have experienced “loss of enjoyment of life, loss of earnings, lost earning capacity, and medical expenses.”
Maine Supreme Court weighs in
To reach their decision, the justices of the Maine Supreme Court needed to crack open a few dictionaries. At issue: the precise definition of the word “result.” The definition was necessary in helping the justices to interpret the phrase “resulting in a collision,” as stated in the Maine Tort Claims Act passed – and, in 2005, amended – by the Maine Legislature.
After reading definitions in three dictionaries, the panel determined that the town of Wells, in its effort to have the complaint dismissed, offered “nothing in the way of dictionary definitions or case law in support of interpreting ‘resulting in a collision’ to mean ‘directly involved in a collision.’”
The panel also said that it found nothing indicating that the Maine Legislature intended “physical contact” by a negligently operated vehicle to be the “lynchpin” for deciding whether a town’s immunity from lawsuits should be waived.
The panel added that it would be unable to support a premise that would permit someone to pursue a legal remedy in the case of a “fender-bender” with a government vehicle that was being negligently operated, but not in the case of, say, a motorist who swerved to avoid such a vehicle and instead hit a tree or a wall.
Exactly, Asen said on Wednesday.
“We think about causation, not physical contact,” Asen said. “If you’re negligent, and you cause an injury, you’re liable. Whether or not there is physical contact is irrelevant.”