A Grand Court justice presiding over the trial of a lawsuit filed in a man’s death during a 2008 police chase has judged the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service to be negligent in failing to end the pursuit.
The family of Bruce Lee Ebanks sued the driver of the vehicle being pursued by police, as well as the Cayman Islands government via the attorney general, over the fatal crash on 29 February, 2008. Mr. Ebanks and 21-year-old Sidney Myles, who were passengers in the car driven by then-19-year-old Alex Callan, died in the Friday night smash on West Bay Road. Mr. Callan survived and was sentenced to four years imprisonment for causing death by dangerous driving.
In late March of this year, Grand Court Justice Alexander Henderson granted a judgment and costs in favour of Paulene Ebanks, the mother of Bruce Lee Ebanks.
Costs were not stated in the judgment made following the trial.
“The accident was contributed to, if not caused by, the speed at which Mr. Callan was driving,” Mr. Justice Henderson wrote in his ruling, dated 27 March, 2013.
“He was doing so because a police car was chasing him. Had the pursuit been terminated, it is more probable than not that Mr. Callan would have slowed down to a normal speed so as to avoid attracting further police attention.
“The negligent failure to end the pursuit was one factor which contributed to the accident.”
According to the court judgment, an RCIPS constable encountered three people driving a vehicle in West Bay just before midnight on 29 February, 2008.
The encounter was in “a known hangout of drug users and traffickers” and “the men were acting suspiciously”, the court ruling notes.
The judgment goes on to state that the police constable “had no evidence which would justify an arrest for either a drug offence or a firearms offence” and that he was simply at an early stage of his investigation.
At any rate, the question to be decided at the trial was whether the RCIPS officers involved adhered to the department’s policy on vehicle pursuits. Mr. Justice Henderson determined the police involved had not followed that policy.
In the pursuit, which lasted just a bit longer than six minutes, two cars drove at high speed from Velma Banks Drive in West Bay and then proceeded along Fountain Road and Town Hall Road – at speeds of some 90 miles per hour – and ended up on West Bay Road near the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman property. Mr. Callan swerved to avoid a collision with another car in the turning lane of West Bay Road and then struck a light pole, killing the two passengers in his car.
One witness to the West Bay Road crash stated he believed the vehicles involved were driving “in excess of 80 miles per hour” prior to Mr. Callan’s car striking the light pole.
While the police constable who initiated the pursuit “could not be criticised” for doing so, according to Justice Henderson, he did not request that a supervisor be notified of the chase, as is RCIPS policy. He also did not immediately provide a reason for the pursuit, although he did state to a 911 operator it was because “males were acting suspiciously on Kings Road” in West Bay and fled from the constable’s patrol vehicle.
Mr. Justice Henderson wrote that the RCIPS policy on pursuits requires a senior police officer to exercise some independent judgment about the circumstances of the chase.
The policy states that immediate arrest of a suspect is “never more important” than the safety of the public. Although an acting police sergeant did eventually advise on the chase, acting in a supervisor’s role, there was no evidence that an actual police supervisor was ever notified, as per policy.
A police supervisor, Mr. Justice Henderson said, would have been able to consider the question: “Is the apprehension of three men who might have been carrying out a drug transaction and who could possibly be in possession of a firearm enough to justify the risk inherent in driving at speeds up to 90 miles per hour on roads in West Bay and at very high speeds on West Bay Road itself?”
Justice Henderson said that answer was likely to be no.
In continuing the pursuit, the police constable violated the letter and spirit of the police chase policy, Mr. Justice Henderson ruled.
“The failures I have mentioned, taken together, amount to an act of negligence,” the justice wrote. “A simple error in judgment is not, by itself, an act of negligence. Something more is needed. However, when an error in judgment is so erroneous as to represent a departure from the usual standard of care expected of trained police officers…then it does amount to negligence as well.”
Crown Counsel Suzanne Bothwell argued during the case that continuation of the police pursuit did not cause the fatal accident on West Bay Road, rather that it was the “unforeseeable” face of the car in the turning lane.
“This submission has no merit,” Mr. Justice Henderson said.