GONZALES — Two Ascension Parish residents filed a lawsuit Tuesday over a high-speed car crash last fall with a Sorrento police officer who was later found to have been driving faster than 75 mph more than 700 times in the two months preceding the crash.
Relying on information from a police car data recorder in the officer’s patrol car, the lawsuit accuses James Lavone Bell, who is no longer with the department, of excessive speeding in the weeks before the crash and at the time of the Sept. 2 collision on Airline Highway when the recorder reportedly showed him going 100 mph.
The suit was filed in the 23rd Judicial District on behalf of driver Joy Aliece Hambrick, 25, of St. Amant and her passenger, Brandon Charles Thomure, and names Bell and the town of Sorrento as defendants.
The suit accuses Bell of “negligence, an utter indifference to and conscious disregard for the safety of others” while claiming the Police Department was negligent and reckless for allowing Bell to continue to drive a patrol car, though the data recorder had indicated past instances of high-speed travel.
The suit comes just a few weeks after the Town Council stopped funding the Police Department following about a year of turmoil.
The department lost its liability insurance Nov. 19, two-and-a-half months after the crash, effectively ending police patrols by the town. The resignation and conviction of former Police Chief Earl Theriot Jr. occurred in February for lying to an FBI agent over inappropriate sexual contact with a drunken woman he picked up after a 911 call.
According to a State Police report, Bell was trying to pass a 2008 Mazda MZ6 that Hambrick was driving Sept. 2 on Airline Highway northbound when he braked, went into a skid, spun around and hit the side of the car.
Bell and witnesses told State Police that Bell had his lights and siren on, and Bell said he was traveling 80 to 90 mph in pursuit of a vehicle traveling 80 mph in a 55 mph zone, the report says.
But the suit alleges that independent witnesses, who were not identified, saw Bell “ping-ponging” back and forth in traffic and claimed he was not in pursuit of a vehicle.
Troopers found Bell at fault because, though he had his lights and siren on, he initially tried to pass the Mazda in the right-hand lane.
Bell, Hambrick and Thomure were not taken to a hospital after the crash, but the new suit claims Thomure and Hambrick, whom the police report lists as having a complaint of a possible injury, were injured.
They are seeking their medical expenses, pain and suffering and other damages.
Bell’s speeding and crash, for which then Theriot reprimanded Bell, emerged last fall as pressure from the mayor, Town Council and the public was building on Theriot and his department over various missteps by him and his officers and the loss of insurance.
Bell resigned Dec. 3.
Theriot has not been replaced, and Sorrento voters will be asked in the Nov. 4 primary whether to continue to have a Police Department and a police chief.
The Ascension Parish Sheriff’s Office is providing police protection in Sorrento.
Mayor Mike Lambert declined comment Wednesday, saying he had not yet seen the suit.