Crosswalk fallout: Gerry Mitchell files suit
First came the accident. Then the bad publicity. Now, 18 months after Gerry Mitchell was struck in his wheelchair by an Albemarle County police cruiser and then ticketed by Charlottesville police in the ER, comes the lawsuit.
Filed Tuesday morning, June 16, in Charlottesville Circuit Court, Mitchell's $850,000 suit alleges negligence, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress and names the City of Charlottesville, Charlottesville Police Officer Steve Grissom, who wrote the ticket, and Albemarle County Police Officer Gregory C. Davis, who was driving the cruiser that struck him in a West Main Street crosswalk on November 5, 2007.
"When you think about the cover up, what they did was so unnecessary and horrible," says Mitchell, reached hours after the suit was filed. "They basically are not being accountable. All the details are going to come out about the injustice."
According to Mitchell and the suit, the injustice began not so much when he was struck but hours later when Charlottesville police issued the ticket while Mitchell was being treated in the UVA emergency room. According to the suit, that charge– failure to obey a pedestrian signal– was drummed up by Charlottesville police in order to "protect" Davis, a fellow officer.
The suit highlights the ways in which Mitchell suffered in the months following the accident. Already weakened by AIDS and with hand and arm injuries allegedly relating to the accident, Mitchell, an artist, was unable to participate in a prestigious show in a Harlem gallery. He was forced to hire an attorney to defend himself against the charges, and he was hospitalized repeatedly for various conditions allegedly stemming from the accident.
The charges against him were dropped in January 2008 when the Commonwealth's Attorney determined the crossing signal at the crosswalk where Mitchell was struck was excluded from then current state code because it used symbols instead of words. The following year, Delegate David Toscano carried a bill to Richmond and had the law changed to ensure such tickets would stick in the future.
Since the charges were dropped, Armstrong says, Mitchell has repeatedly attempted to settle with the city and the county.
"Neither were willing to look at this reasonably," says Armstrong. "They forced him to file suit."
At Hook presstime Tuesday, June 16, representatives in both city and county attorneys offices said they had not received notice of the suit and declined comment.
Co-counsel will be Debbie Wyatt, who supposedly retired two years ago, but who now says she feels strongly enough to temporarily emerge retirement.
"I agreed to assist because I thought it was a good case," says Wyatt, noting that Mitchell's incident was not the first time police had tangled with pedestrians that fall. In September 2007, Richard Silva and Blair Austin were heading home from a birthday celebration and claimed they were nearly struck by a speeding police SUV driven by Charlottesville Police Officer Mike Flaherty. An altercation followed in the Water Street crosswalk, with one witness calling 911 to report police brutality. The young couple– now married parents– were charged with various offenses, spent the night in jail, and incurred tens of thousands in legal bills. As with Mitchell, Silva and Austin were both eventually found not guilty.
These situations, says Wyatt, "don't give the image we want from our police officers."