Officer responsible for fatal crash didn’t violate victim’s rights, judge rules

A former South Bend police officer who killed a motorist while driving in excess of 90 mph did not violate the motorist’s constitutional rights, a federal judge has ruled in dismissing a civil case against the officer. The judge did, however, authorize the filing of some claims in state court.

Soraida Flores, personal representative of the Estate of Erica Flores, sued the city of South Bend and former officer Justin Gorny after Gorny ran a red light and collided with Erica’s vehicle, killing her.

Gorny was responding to a call for assistance at a South Bend “hot spot” where a speeding vehicle was seen. Though Gorny was not assigned to work the “hot spot” at the time of the July 20, 2018, crash, he was two miles away.

“Plaintiff alleges that Gorny greatly exceeded the speed limit as he drove to the ‘hotspot,’ reaching 78 mph in a 30 mph zone at one point, and 98 mph at another point, inconsistently activating his lights and sirens throughout,” Northern Indiana District Court Judge James T. Moody wrote March 13 in his order in Soraido Flores, as Personal Representative of the Estate of Erica Flores, deceased v. City of South Bend, a municipal corporation, and Justin Gorny, 2:19-cv-64.

The estate alleged Gorny violated Flores’ substantive due process rights under the 14th Amendment and under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. But Moody granted Gorny’s motion to dismiss under Hill v. Shobe, 93 F.3d 418 (7th Cir. 1996).

“Plaintiff alleges that defendant Gorny was pursuing the ‘hot spot’ in northwest South Bend unnecessarily, and that it was a ‘non-emergency’ situation. Plaintiff further alleges that Gorny drove at high rates of speed (in the vicinity of 78 and 98 mph at different times), while disregarding red lights and inconsistently activating his sirens and lights,” Moody wrote. “However, such allegations are insufficient to state a claim under § 1983 because, like the facts in Hill, the facts alleged by plaintiff do not permit a reasonable inference … that Gorny had sufficient knowledge of the danger such that one could further infer … that Gorny intended to inflict the resultant injury.

“Put another way,” Moody continued, “under Hill, the facts alleged do not permit a reasonable inference that Gorny ‘knew an accident was imminent but consciously and culpably refused to prevent it.’ Hill, 93 F.3d at 421.”

Likewise, because there was no individual liability against Gorny, the estate’s Monell claim against South Bend also failed, the judge wrote.

Finally, the estate brought two state-law wrongful death claims, which Moody declined to exercise jurisdiction over.

“Here, plaintiff will not be prejudiced by this dismissal because she may refile the case in state court as appropriate under Indiana’s saving statute, Ind. Code § 34-11-8-1, and the tolling provision of 28 U.S.C. § 1367(d). Moreover, this matter remains at the pleading stage, and extensive judicial resources have not yet been committed to the claims such that sending the case to another court would cause a substantial duplication of effort. Finally, the merits of the state-law claims are not ‘absolutely’ clear, and therefore a state court should have the opportunity to address the merits of these claims in the first instance.”

Gorny was never criminally charged in the fatal crash, but he was fired from the South Bend police force in November 2018.

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