BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
COURTHOUSE — The family of Doris V. Baxter, an 88-year-old woman who in March died following an automobile accident with an emergency medical services officer who was driving a city vehicle, has filed a civil lawsuit against the officer and the city government.
The civil suit seeks $5 million from the city and EMS Brigade Chief Jeffrey L. Brennaman, according to records filed this summer in Circuit Court.
Brennaman in August pleaded guilty to an infraction, improper driving, in connection to the crash near Lynnhaven Mall, according to court records. Initially, he had been accused of reckless driving, a misdemeanor, in the criminal case.
Brennaman is on administrative duty while internal reviews of the incident are underway as of Wednesday, Aug. 31.
In a response to the civil lawsuit, the city on Thursday, Aug. 18, entered a special plea of sovereign immunity, noting that Brennaman was in a city-owned vehicle and was working as the on-duty shift commander for EMS at the time of the collision.
Brennaman was headed to the city garage to check on vehicles that were being repaired, according to the city.
Sovereign immunity protects municipal governments from “burdensome interference with the performance of its governmental functions,” the city argued. That means “a municipality is immune from liability for negligence in the exercise of governmental functions.”
Though ultimately the matter will be decided by the court, Deputy City Attorney Chris Boynton on Tuesday, Sept. 13, said the city, as an entity, is not liable in the matter under existing law. Liability for Brennaman is a more nuanced issue for the court, Boynton said.
Regardless of liability, he said it’s a tragic circumstance.
“We absolutely feel for Ms. Baxter’s family and their loss,” Boynton said.
The city is paying for Brennaman’s legal representation in the case, he said.
Brennaman’s attorney, James A. Cales III, in an initial responses to Baxter’s estate, denied “any allegation of negligence or wrongful conduct on his part having caused injury.”
The response by Cales acknowledges that Baxter died of injuries sustained in the accident.
“This defendent denies that he is indebted to the plaintiff for any sum, for any reason,” the response said.
Cales declined to comment when he was reached by phone on Tuesday, Sept. 13.
The police investigation into the crash focused upon whether Brennaman was distracted, according to an affidavit filed with a search warrant in the Circuit Court.
Brennaman was talking on his personal cell phone with a coworker when the crash happened on March 1, according to a summary in court records from the criminal case.
Brennaman ran a red light and collided with a vehicle in the intersection of Lynnhaven Parkway and North Mall Drive.
The suit filed against Brennaman and the city said Baxter was a passenger in a car driven by Danielle M. Brooks, her granddaughter.
Their car was traveling west on Avenger Drive, crossing the intersection with Lynnhaven Drive to enter North Mall Drive, according to the lawsuit.
The suit alleges Brennaman, who was headed south on Lynnhaven Parkway, negligently disregarded the red light and collided with the car carrying Brooks and Baxter.
Baxter, was pronounced dead at a hospital after the crash, and Brooks was injured.
Baxter was retired as a supervisor at the Navy Exchange at Naval Air Station Oceana, according to an obituary.
She was predeceased by James V. Baxter, her husband of 50 years.
She is survived by three grandchildren and five great grandchildren, among other loved ones, according to the obituary.
Her three grandchildren are listed as beneficiaries of the estate in the civil suit.
Martin A. Thomas, an attorney who is representing the estate of Baxter in the civil suit, did not respond to a phone call from The Independent News made on Tuesday, Sept. 13.
© 2016 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC