Supreme Court says OPD officer not reckless in crash

Published 6:45 am Wednesday, August 16, 2023

By Marie McMullan

The officer involved in a 2018 crash had not acted in “reckless disregard,” the Mississippi Supreme Court said in an Aug. 3 ruling. In its opinion, the state Supreme Court also found that the city of Oxford was protected from civil lawsuits under police-protection immunity.

On Sept. 13, 2018, Oxford police officer Matthew Brown responded to a general wreck callout. Driving through the red light at the intersection of Molly Barr Road and Lamar Boulevard, Brown collided with Patricia Phillips’ vehicle. Phillips and her daughter, a minor, suffered injuries and were discharged from the emergency room the same day, according to court documents.

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Brown’s written report of the incident documented his “high rate of speed” and acknowledged that he “did not slow down enough to fully clear the intersection.” His supervisor, Lt. Alex Stratton, wrote in an accident report that “[Brown] was not being vigilant enough when proceeding through the red light.”

[Brown] was informed that he was only to respond to a call code if it is 100 percent necessary and must yield to right of way when clearing intersections,” Stratton also wrote.

The city of Oxford cited Brown in a disciplinary report for committing a safety violation, prompting a three-shift suspension, six months of probation and remedial emergency driving training for the officer.

Phillips, meanwhile, filed a civil complaint against the city to recover funds expended as a result of her and her daughter’s injuries. She alleged that Brown violated a statute geared at emergency vehicle drivers. The driver of any authorized emergency vehicle when responding to an emergency call upon approaching a red or stop signal or any stop sign shall slow down as necessary for safety but may proceed cautiously past such red or stop sign or signal,” Mississippi Code Section 63-3-215 reads.

In March 2021, the Lafayette County Circuit Court concluded that Brown did not act in “reckless disregard” and that the city fell under the police-protection immunity of the Mississippi Tort Claims Act.

When Phillips appealed, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s decision. The Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Phillips. It found that “the overwhelming weight of evidence” suggested that Brown had acted in “reckless disregard” and that Oxford was not entitled to immunity, according to court documents.

The city then submitted a writ of certiorari to the state Supreme Court. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the appeals’ court’s decision in an en banc opinion, holding that the trial court had made the correct decision initially.

It is possible that reasonable minds could differ on the question of whether Officer Brown acted in reckless disregard for the safety of others,” Justice Coleman wrote in the court’s opinion. Yet, the state Supreme Court noted that “[t]he applicable standard of review, however, requires us to affirm a trial judge’s finding when it is supported by substantial evidence.”

With its ruling, the state Supreme Court cemented that Brown’s actions were not reckless and that the city was immune under police-protection immunity.