August 25, 2019
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Rockport settles lawsuits resulting from police chase that ended with two deaths

ROCKPORT, Maine — The town has settled the claims filed by families in connection to a December 2015 high-speed police pursuit that ended with a car crash that claimed two lives.

The Maine Municipal Association Property & Casualty Pool paid $200,000 to the estate of Kara Brewer, Rockport Town Manager Rick Bates confirmed Thursday. The insurance pool also paid $100,000 to Jeri Vitale of Warren on behalf of her 17-year-old daughter, Emily Vitale, who survived the accident.

Both Brewer and 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 the high-speed pursuit on Dec. 5, 2015, 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 of intent to sue the town stated the teen suffered serious and permanent personal and psychological injuries, she lost her friend Brewer in the crash, and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the loss.

“This was one of the saddest cases I’ve ever been a part of. Kara’s death had a profound impact on her family, friends and the entire midcoast. Her family continues to grieve, and we ask that people respect their privacy, “ attorney Benjamin Gideon said in a statement released Thursday.

Gideon, who represented the Brewer estate, would not discuss the amount of the settlement or details of the negotiations that have occurred during the past few months with Rockport, Cooley and the insurance company for Byras.

“At its core, this case was about the policies and laws that govern the actions of police officers. We have great respect for Maine’s police departments and the officers who bravely serve, often under stressful circumstances. But as a society, we also have a responsibility to keep watch on our police forces, to provide checks and balances on their power, to question their actions, and to hold them accountable when necessary,” Gideon said.

The Brewer estate had filed a $5 million claim against the town in April. The Vitale claim had not sought a specific dollar figure but said the girl’s medical bills had reached nearly $40,000.

“The town concurred in the Pool’s decision to resolve the claims that arose from this tragic event without protracted litigation, for the sake of all concerned,” Bates said.

Both notices of claims filed against the town contended that Cooley violated Rockport Police Department policy and failed to follow standard police practices.

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 was not certified as a full-time officer but as a part-time officer.

The notices also argued 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.”

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. The town took him off patrol duties after the crash and he remains as the administrative assistant.

Rockport Police Chief Mark Kelley defended Cooley, however, after the crash and said Cooley acted appropriately when he pursued the speeding teen driver. Kelley resigned as chief in June after more than 30 years with the department.

Rockport has since reached an agreement with the neighboring town of Camden for its chief, Randy Gagne, to serve as Rockport’s police chief through at least the end of the year.

 



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