Sevierville officer ruled partly responsible for wreck

Jul. 16, 2013 @ 11:43 PM

A Sevier County jury ruled Friday that a speeding police officer responding to a call was partially responsible for a wreck that occurred after a driver pulled in front of his car on Highway 66.

The jury awarded $200,000 to Ruby Cardwell for injuries she sustained in the wreck. It ruled former Sevierville Police Officer Travis Johnson was 30 percent responsible for the wreck, and that the third driver, Phillip Collier of Sevier County, was responsible for the other 70 percent in damages. That means the jury expects the city to pay $60,000, while Collier pays $140,000 to Cardwell.

The wreck occurred at 11:45 a.m. on Oct. 21, 2009. Ruby Cardwell was in the car with her husband, James Cardwell, who later died due to a condition unrelated to the wreck, said Matthew Cook, Cardwell's attorney. They were getting ready to turn right from Highway 66 into Flea Traders Paradise as Johnson was approaching in the left lane. Collier had apparently just turned onto the road and went to pass the Cardwells as Johnson reached the scene.

Dash cam video released by Cardwell’s attorney indicates Johnson had just reached 97 mph in the area, which was part of a construction zone, when Collier pulled in front of him. He tries to get around Collier by pulling into the left lane, and appears to strike both cars.

A police siren is heard in the video, and cars can be seen pulling out of Johnson's way.

The Cardwells were treated at LeConte Medical Center, but Ruby Cardwell complained of lingering back pain, Cook said.

“Her injuries were serious enough that she had to leave her employment years before she intended to,” he said.

Johnson was still in the department's field training program, which indicates he had only recently joined the force when the accident occurred, department spokesman Bob Stahlke said Monday. Johnson resigned shortly after the wreck.

Attorney Ken Ward, who represented Collier, said he couldn’t comment on the case yet. His client still has time to file an appeal, he said. Attorney Dan Pilkington, who represented the city, did not respond to a message seeking an interview for this story.

Cook said testimony indicated Johnson had initially been responding to a call about a shoplifting and bad check, but said dispatchers had discovered one of the suspects appeared to have a warrant on him and that suspect had fled.

Stahlke said Johnson was responding to a call for backup.

“Officer Johnson was going to that call to back up an officer,’ he said. “There were four suspects at the time when he was going to back up the officer, and there was some concern for officer safety.”

Stahlke would not comment Monday on whether Johnson was following SPD guidelines at the time of the wreck. Stahlke said he could not comment on the matter further right now because it isn’t clear whether an appeal will be filed.

Cook said that as a former officer, he believed Johnson was driving too dangerously.

“I’m very, very hesitant to take anything involving an officer as a former officer myself,” he said. “To me, there’s got to be something clearly wrong with their behavior before I point a finger at another officer.

“There’s no excuse for doing 95 mph in that area during that time,” he said.

jfarrell@themountainpress.com