ROCKPORT, Maine — The mother of a 16-year-old Rockland girl killed in December in a car crash following a high-speed police pursuit is seeking $5 million in damages from the town.
The formal notice of intent to sue by Danielle Benner on behalf of the estate of her daughter Kara Brewer was received Friday by Rockport.
It was the second formal notice received by the town this week. Earlier this week, Jeri Vitale of Warren filed one on behalf of her 17-year-old daughter Emily Vitale, who survived the accident. Both Brewer and Emily Vitale were passengers in the 2001 Subaru Outback driven by 17-year-old Caleb Byras of Litchfield, who led Rockport police Officer Craig Cooley on a high-speed pursuit on Dec. 5 from Rockport to Wotton’s Mill Road in Union, where the car crashed and split into two large pieces.
Byras and Brewer died instantly. Vitale suffered injuries to an ankle, police said at the time of the crash.
The Vitale notice states that the teen suffered “serious and permanent personal and psychological injuries.” Vitale lost her friend Brewer in the crash and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the loss.
Vitale’s medical bills have accumulated to nearly $40,000, according to the claim. While no specific dollar amount of damages is listed in the Vitale notice, it seeks past and future medical expenses, past and future loss of wages, and damages for mental and emotional anguish.
Both notices state that Cooley violated Rockport Police Department policy and failed to follow standard police practices. The town, Cooley and Police Chief Mark Kelley are named as defendants in the claims.
Cooley pursued the car driven by Byras after the teen failed to stop when the officer tried to pull him over for speeding on Route 17 in Rockport. The chase lasted about four minutes before the crash occurred.
Cooley had issued a ticket to Byras about an hour earlier for driving 74 mph in a 55-mph zone on the same road.
The claims point out that the local department’s policy states that only full-time law enforcement officers may participate in a high-speed pursuit. Cooley is not certified as a full-time officer but as a part-time officer.
The notices also argue that Cooley violated the provision that states a law enforcement officer “shall not engage in high-speed pursuit if the operator is known” to the officer unless there is “a serious indication of further violent actions if not immediately apprehended.”
Further, the two parties say Cooley violated the clause that states an officer “shall not pursue vehicles for Class D and E crimes or traffic violations, unless the conditions surrounding the pursuit are conducive to safe operation, management and due regard for the safety of the officer, the public and the person or persons in the vehicle being pursued.”
Cooley was taken off patrol duty last month and assigned to full-time administrative duties pending the results of an independent review of the police department’s policy by a consulting firm the town hired last month.
In the past 20 years, Cooley has split his time between being the administrative assistant to the chief and a patrol officer with the Rockport Police Department.
Rockport Police Chief Mark Kelley defended Cooley, however, and said Cooley acted appropriately when he pursued the speeding teen driver.
Vitale is represented by attorney Peter Clifford of Kennebunk and Benner is represented by Benjamin Gideon of Lewiston.
Rockport’s attorney, Edward Benjamin Jr., said state law requires notices of claim be served on municipalities before a lawsuit is filed to give that municipality an opportunity to investigate the allegations. The town has 120 days to respond to the claims.
“At this point the town really isn’t in a position to comment beyond that because these notices have just been received and the town’s investigation has not concluded,” Benjamin said.
He said legal fees incurred to defend against any lawsuits that may be filed would be covered under the town’s membership in the Maine Municipal Association Property and Casualty Pool, which is a self-insured municipal risk pool.