A wrongful death case against a Delaware State Police trooper appears headed for trial, after a Delaware Superior Court judge on Tuesday rejected the state’s assertion that the officer had not directly caused a high-speed crash that killed a woman during a police chase.
In a 27-page memorandum opinion, Judge Andrea L. Rocanelli denied a motion for summary judgment by Trooper Owen Cocolin and the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security’s Division of State Police, saying that a jury should decide whether Cocolin acted with gross negligence in a 2014 pursuit in Wilmington that killed 53-year-old Mary Smith.
“In consideration of Trooper Cocolin’s continuing course of conduct and proximity to the ultimate collision, the record contains an adequate basis for a jury to conclude that ‘but for Trooper Cocolin’s decision to initiate and continue the pursuit, Ms. Smith’s death would not have occurred,” Rocanelli wrote.
Lee Vincent Ramunno, an attorney for Smith’s family, said he expected the case to go to trial as scheduled on Aug. 14, though he declined to comment any further on the case.
According to court documents, the state’s automobile insurance policy would cover up to $1 million in damages stemming from the case, but Delaware would be immune from liability exceeding that cap.
The crash occurred shortly after 9 p.m. Oct. 2, 2014, as Cocolin responded to a report of two men using heroin in a Ford Mustang while parked at a shopping center on Miller Road in Wilmington. According to court papers, Cocolin approached the car with his emergency lights engaged, but the driver, Stephen Jefferis, threw the Mustang into reverse and took off toward 37th Street, weaving “at high speeds” around slower drivers.
As Cocolin gave chase close behind, Jefferis ran a red light at the corner of Lea Boulevard and Philadelphia Pike and smashed into a Pontiac, killing Smith.
According to Rocanelli’s opinion, Jefferis was driving about 99 miles-per-hour at the time. He was later convicted on charges stemming from the crash and is not scheduled to be released from prison until 2041.
Attorneys for the Delaware Department of Justice argued that the state defendants were protected from liability under Delaware’s tort claims act and another law that extends privileges to drivers of emergency vehicles pursuing criminal suspects.
Cocolin, they said, had acted in the public interest to pursue a driver under the influence of heroin, and a reasonable jury could not find that he had acted with gross negligence.
“This judgment call cannot amount to gross negligence under Delaware law. If it did, it is hard to imagine how the many day-to-day, split-second determinations demanded of law enforcement would likewise not be called into question,” Deputy Attorney General Lynn A. Kelly said in an April 28 brief.
However, Rocanelli said that there remained important questions of fact regarding Cocolin’s actions that night that had not been fully fleshed out in the parties’ filings.
“Specifically, the record contains factual inconsistencies regarding the parties’ respective rates of speed, the presence of vehicular or pedestrian traffic in the area of pursuit, whether Trooper Cocolin conformed his conduct to the Delaware State Policy Pursuit Policy’s guidelines, and whether the likelihood of injury to innocent bystanders outweighed the immediate need to apprehend Jefferis,” the judge said.
“The court finds that resolution of these issues by a jury is necessary.”
Contacted late Wednesday, the DOJ did not immediately provide comment for this story.
The case is captioned Amalfitano v. Cocolin.