Mother of girl injured in Pittsburgh police chase hopes lawsuit will spark change
The mother of a child seriously injured during a Pittsburgh police chase hopes her lawsuit against the city will help spur a change in how police handle those who flee traffic stops.
Carolyn Hanner’s daughter was 12 when she was seriously injured in the Nov. 22, 2015 pursuit and ensuing crash. She spoke Thursday about the the pain she and her family have endured since then.
“She had a severe brain injury, so there’s no time frame,” Hanner said of her daughter, who is now 15 and in her freshman year of high school. “It’s just taking it slow and seeing if she progresses and if she’ll need more help. I think she will.”
The lawsuit alleges negligence by the city of Pittsburgh and the Port Authority. A spokesman for the city declined to comment on pending litigation, as did a spokesman for the Port Authority.
The pursuit began when her son, Donovan Robinson, driving a borrowed vehicle, allegedly committed a traffic offense near the intersection of Shetland Street and Larimer Avenue in the city’s Larimer neighborhood.
Two police officers in one police cruiser attempted a traffic stop, and Robinson – then 23 – took off. In the passenger seat was a 16-year-old friend and, in the backseat, Robinson’s 12-year-old half-sister, according to the lawsuit.
Three other Pittsburgh police vehicles became involved, as well as one Port Authority police vehicle.
The pursuit lasted several minutes and went through East Liberty, Bloomfield and Shadyside before Robinson crashed into another vehicle near Baum Boulevard and Broughton Street.
“No citizen should ever be exposed to the risk of serious bodily harm or even death because somebody ran a stop sign,” said Timothy O’Brien, one of the Pittsburgh attorney’s filing the lawsuit on behalf of Hanner’s daughter.
“We acknowledge that no citizen, on the other hand, should flee from the police,” O’Brien said. “When a citizen does that and exercises bad judgment, it’s incumbent upon the police to exercise better judgment, and better judgment is not exercised by pursuing someone who has done nothing more than a minor traffic violation.”
The lawsuit, filed by O’Brien and attorney Alec Wright, alleged that the first officers followed Robinson for three minutes before attempting a traffic stop, during which time they should have noted there were two children in the car.
The lawsuit also alleges that Robinson followed all traffic laws up until police attempted the traffic stop and Robinson took off.
“What this lawsuit seeks to accomplish is to change the way that we train – and if we don’t train, begin to train – our police officers on the dangers of those pursuits and to make sure that every time a police officer engages in a high-speed pursuit that it’s justified in the sense that there’s a need for the immediate apprehension,” O’Brien said.
Rolling through a stop sign or some other traffic violation is not justification, he said.
The lawsuit alleged that all of the officers “were aware that they were pursing Robinson in a dangerous manner through a highly populated residential and commercial area … over an alleged minor traffic offense, including driving into oncoming traffic and through stop lights and sighs at double the posted limit.”
The end result was a head-on crash with another vehicle driven by a Wexford couple headed to visit their daughter in Bloomfield, police said at the time. They were taken to UPMC Presbyterian with minor injuries. Robinson sustained minor injuries, and the 16-year-old had to be cut from the wreckage and taken to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
The 12-year-old, referred to in the lawsuit only as DH, was found unresponsive in the backseat and taken to UPMC Mercy in critical condition.
Three years later, she still suffers from hearing and balance issues, among others. She is self-conscious of scars on her head.
“She wants to look as normal as possible,” Hanner said.
She also wants to cheerlead, but the lingering effects of the crash have left her unable to participate. Instead, she watches her sister cheerlead.
Hanner said doctors have told her that they can’t give her a time for when – or even if – her daughter will ever be back to herself. She said that’s hard to hear.
The pursuit and crash prompted then-Pittsburgh police Chief Cameron McLay to issue a bureau-wide memo barring officers from initiating a chase unless they believe a suspect in a violent felony is involved.
“Regrettably, too many instances occur where our police pursuits create greater danger to the public than the violations we are seeking to address through enforcement,” McLay wrote in the memo.
Police later found a ballistic vest, two ski masks and a police scanner in the vehicle Robinson was driving, investigators said. Robinson eventually pleaded guilty to more than 50 charges, including fleeing police, aggravated assault with a vehicle, reckless endangerment and 26 traffic violations.
The lawsuit cited Pittsburgh police pursuit statistics in the years leading up to the 2015 crash – a total of 729 high-speed pursuits from 2012 through 2015. Of those, 54 percent (393) were initiated because of traffic offenses, according to the numbers cited in the lawsuit. Of the 393, 23 percent ended with collisions causing damage or injury.
“Citizens make mistakes, justified or unjustified,” Wright said. “It will always be unjust for a police officer to put an innocent person in harm’s way.”
O’Brien said that’s the crux of the lawsuit.
“It goes back to the original point, which is that we expect ordinary citizens to sometimes make bad judgments,” he said. “We don’t expect the police or the municipality that employs them to make worse judgment in response.”
Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, [email protected] or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.