Baton Rouge police unit

A Baton Rouge police unit shown May 22, 2017.

A jury rightly concluded that Baton Rouge police weren't responsible for an alcohol-related crash that left a man permanently brain-damaged and others injured, an appeals court ruled this week in what it called an "unfortunate" case.

The 2008 wreck between a car and an 18-wheeler occurred 30 minutes after officers stopped the car's driver, Jean Paul Palmer, for running a stop sign but didn't arrest him for driving with a suspended license.

The car also had an expired inspection sticker and only one working headlight. A baby was in the car with no car seat. Palmer was issued traffic citations after the stop for an expired inspection sticker, one headlight and no child car seat.

About 15 minutes after police left the predawn traffic stop, Palmer ran another stop sign and collided with the truck at Florida Boulevard and O'Neal Lane. More than two hours after the crash, his blood-alcohol level registered at 0.21% — well beyond the 0.08% considered presumptive evidence of drunken driving in Louisiana for people 21 and older.

Injured plaintiffs in the case, which included the truck driver and several people in Palmer's car, sought nearly $5 million from the city-parish when the case went to trial in 2018.

The plaintiffs argued that officers were negligent in letting Palmer go after seeing him run a stop sign and becoming aware of his suspended license and four outstanding misdemeanor warrants.

They also claimed police acted negligently in merely warning Palmer against driving the car instead of remaining on scene to ensure his compliance.

Plaintiffs further alleged that police acted unreasonably in failing to ask Palmer if he had been drinking, failing to get close enough to smell his breath, failing to perform a field sobriety test, horizontal gaze test or look into his eyes and failing to tow the car.

Police testified they had no reason to believe Palmer was intoxicated when they stopped him at 2 a.m. on July 10, 2008, in the Melrose East area.

In its ruling Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal said the jury listened to and observed all of the fact witnesses and expert witnesses, weighed the evidence, made credibility determinations and viewed the video of the traffic stop in whole and in part numerous times throughout the trial.

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"In this unfortunate case, we are unable to replace our opinion with the opinion of the jury and are constrained to rely upon the jury's view of the conflicting testimony and evidence," Circuit Judge Chris Hester wrote for the panel that included Judges Mitch Theriot and Beth Wolfe.

The plaintiffs are expected to take the case to the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Hester said the plaintiffs cited no law or case, nor was any evidence submitted at trial, to establish that the officers had to arrest Palmer based on his outstanding warrants or on the offenses committed prior to that particular traffic stop.

The plaintiffs' expert testified that he thought Palmer should have been arrested, Hester noted.

On the issue of intoxication, officers admitted that they either did not ask Palmer whether he had been drinking that night or did not recall if anyone asked the question. But they also testified that Palmer showed no signs of intoxication during the stop.

"At best, it was established that the officers could have arrested Palmer as a result of the traffic stop, but there was no 'uncontradicted' testimony that the officers were required to arrest Palmer," Hester wrote. "The jury also heard the testimony of officers … that they did not observe anything Palmer did that would give them reasonable suspicion to conduct a field sobriety test."

Then-state District Judge Todd Hernandez, who presided over the trial, refused in 2019 to throw out the jury verdict.

City-parish attorneys argued at trial that Palmer was 100% at fault for the crash. The plaintiffs' lawyers argued that Palmer's arrest would have prevented the crash.

Palmer was 29 at the time of the wreck and had a prior DWI conviction.

In 2011, he pleaded no contest to four counts of first-degree vehicular negligent injury stemming from the 2008 crash and was sentenced to five years in prison, with all but two years suspended, to be followed by four years of probation. His probation was revoked in 2013 and he was sentenced to five years in prison. Court records show he tested positive for cocaine in 2012.


Email Joe Gyan Jr. at jgyan@theadvocate.com.