Mitchell's suit: City released as crosswalk trial advances
More than three years after disabled artist Gerry Mitchell was struck by an Albemarle County Police cruiser and then ticketed, his $850,000 lawsuit against the City of Charlottesville and two police officers has found a trial date– but the biggest of the three defendants is off the hook.
In a February 24 hearing in Charlottesville Circuit Court, attorney John Zunka, representing the City, argued that the municipality is protected from liability by the legal concept of sovereign immunity, which offers wide protection to government.
Judge Gaylord L. Finch (who is hearing the case after Judge Edward Hogshire recused himself and the first replacement fell ill) agreed with Zunka's reasoning and dismissed Mitchell's claims against the city. However, Finch allowed Mitchell's claims against the two officers– among them, negligence, malicious prosecution, and intentional infliction of emotional distress– to go forward, setting a trial date of September 27-28.
"We're happy that a jury is going to get to hear this case and decide the issue," says Richard Armstrong, attorney for Mitchell.
As reported in 2007 Hook cover story, Mitchell was steering his motorized wheelchair in a West Main Street crosswalk when County Officer Gregory C. Davis turned left from Fourth Street onto West Main, striking Mitchell and throwing him from his chair. The incident was recorded by the cruiser's dash-cam– a video whose release provoked an uproar because it showed Mitchell plainly visible in broad daylight, contradicted several aspects of the Police Chief's portrayal of the incident, and it also revealed that Davis had been listening to the Black Eyed Peas Platinum-selling song "My Humps."
Mitchell's suit alleges that ticketing officer Steve Grissom and Davis, who wasn't present but who was represented by Richmond attorney Richard Dybing, conspired to issue a ticket to protect Davis from liability. Their joint visit to Mitchell's hospital bedside to deliver the ticket, Armstrong argued in court, constitutes the intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Attorneys Zunka and Dybing did not immediately return a reporter's calls.
Mitchell has long suffered from health ailments, including AIDS, and the suit alleges that his already precarious health nosedived following the accident. Hand and arm injuries allegedly relating to the accident rendered Mitchell, an artist, unable to participate in a prestigious show in a Harlem gallery. He felt forced to hire an attorney to defend himself against the criminal jaywalking charge–- which was dropped in January 2008–- and he was hospitalized repeatedly for various conditions allegedly stemming from the accident.
Mitchell, who did not attend the hearing, says he's glad to finally get his day in court.
"They have no idea what they've done to me by being so mean-spirited," says Mitchell, who says he tried to settle with the defendents before filing suit. "The fact that we've gotten this far," he says, "is good."Read more on: Gerry Mitchell