A 14-year-old driver's decision to flee law enforcement officers in an "erratic and dangerous fashion" was the sole cause of an interstate crash in Baton Rouge that killed the boy and injured several other motorists, an appeals court has ruled in absolving Louisiana State Police of liability in the 2004 accident.
Sylvester Bristol Jr., who was driving without a license and with no headlights on in the dark, led Gonzales police and eventually state troopers on a chase from Airline Highway west on La. 74, north on La. 73 and finally west on Interstate 10 to East Baton Rouge Parish.
Speeds reached up to 100 mph. Bristol also drove through several stop signs and red lights without stopping.
At the conclusion of a 2015 trial, an East Baton Rouge Parish jury found no liability on the part of State Police. During the trial, the city of Gonzales reached a settlement with the plaintiffs. The plaintiffs included Bristol's parents, and the driver and passengers of a car that collided with Bristol on the interstate.
The state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal ruled last week that Bristol had multiple opportunities to slow or stop the Oldsmobile Cutlass he was driving during the 13-minute pursuit but "inexplicably chose not to stop."
"Our exhaustive review of all the evidence reveals that the Louisiana State Police was not responsible for this terrible and unfortunate accident," Circuit Judge Toni Higginbotham wrote for a three-judge panel of the court.
"Sylvester placed himself, the public, and all involved law enforcement personnel in immediate danger by driving dangerously at high rates of speed without lights and without a license," she stated.
State troopers "acted reasonably and did their jobs as they were trained to do in a highly dangerous situation," Higginbotham added.
The plaintiffs' expert in traffic accident reconstruction and police emergency vehicle driving testified at the 2015 trial that state troopers followed Bristol too closely and were too aggressive when they pulled in front of him at various points in the pursuit, and they should have backed off and followed him instead of trying to force him to slow down or stop.
State Police's experts testified that the most probable cause for Bristol leaving the interstate and colliding with the other vehicle was due to his own steering maneuvers; that it was appropriate for troopers to get in front of the Oldsmobile in order to warn other motorists and try to slow the car down because its headlights were not turned on; and that his car was not knocked out of control by a trooper.
"It was the decision of Sylvester to flee law enforcement officers in an erratic and dangerous fashion that was the sole cause of this accident," wrote Higginbotham, who was joined by fellow Circuit Judges Guy Holdridge and Allison Penzato.
Bristol sideswiped a State Police car when he crossed the Siegen Lane overpass heading west on I-10. After pretending to exit off the interstate at Bluebonnet Boulevard, he tried to continue forward on I-10 but oversteered to the left and crossed the median and slid sideways into oncoming I-10 eastbound traffic. A Chevrolet Impala hit the Cutlass on the driver's side, killing Bristol on impact.
The 1st Circuit ruling came in an appeal filed by the driver of the Impala and its passengers, all of whom suffered injuries.