SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — A federal appeals court has ruled that a wrongful death lawsuit can proceed against a former South Bend police officer who killed a young mother when he ran a red light and plowed his patrol car into her vehicle.
Wednesday's decision by a three-judge panel of the Chicago-based U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal judge's March 2020 ruling that Justin Gorny could not be held liable under federal law for the death of Erica Flores, 22, the South Bend Tribune reported.
But the appellate court found that the claims in the lawsuit Flores' family filed in 2019 against Gorny and the city of South Bend meet the legal threshold.
That lawsuit alleges that South Bend officers working a night shift communicated over the radio about a van speeding through a patrol area on the morning of the July 2018 collision. It alleges no officers in the immediate area signaled the situation was an emergency or requested additional help.
Gorny, who was 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away, began driving toward the speeding van without activating his sirens and reached speeds of 98 miles per hour (158 kilometers per hour) while not continually activating his emergency lights, the suit alleges.
The resulting crash killed Flores, a mother of two young daughters, as she was returning home from work.
City attorneys argued that Gorny's view of Flores' vehicle at the intersection was obstructed, meaning the suit could not prove Gorny intended to harm Flores.
But the appellate court found that her family's lawsuit can continue because a jury could potentially find that Gorny acted with "deliberate indifference."
"Gorny's reckless conduct, unjustified by any emergency or even an order to assist in a routine traffic stop that five officers had under control, allows the inference that he subjectively knew about the risk he created and consciously disregarded it," the court wrote.
Steve Phillips, an attorney for Flores' family, said if the city does not admit wrongdoing and "adequately compensate" the family, the case will continue with discovery and go to trial.
"We believe the 7th circuit made the correct ruling and that the city of South Bend and officer Gorny need to take responsibility for the death of Erica Flores," he said.
A message seeking comment was left Friday for attorney Peter J. Agostino, who is representing the city and Gorny.
Caleb Bauer, a spokesman for South Bend's mayor, declined to comment, saying the city does not comment on pending litigation.
A grand jury declined to indict Gorny in the fatal crash, but the city's public safety board fired him in November 2018.