By the time Melvin Rush saw the police cruiser about to T-bone his new pickup truck, it was too late, he told a jury on Wednesday. The officer had run a red light in East Anchorage and smashed into the side of Rush's Chevrolet in the middle of an intersection.
Rush's lawyer said the officer, 11-year- veteran Michael Wisel, was looking at his in-car computer and did not see the stoplight. A trial to decide how much money the Municipality of Anchorage owes Rush, an Army pilot who served three tours of duty in Iraq, opened Wednesday.
Rush testified that the 2010 crash gave him lasting injuries that have changed his life for the worse. His lawyer, Jim Valcarce, is demanding $500,000 in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages in his client's lawsuit.
Assistant Municipal attorney Sam Severin does not dispute that Wisel is responsible for the wreck or that Rush is owed some money, but he says awarding punitive damages would be going too far.
According to a trial brief by Valcarce, the city paid Rush's medical bills and the cost to fix his truck. It is Rush's further suffering for which he is owed money, the lawyer said.
Wisel -- wearing his police uniform, gun and all -- watched in court as Valcarce questioned Rush about the wreck on July 15, 2010.
Rush said it was early in the morning and he was driving to work at Fort Richardson in the pickup he'd bought just the month before. Rush flies and trains other pilots in C-23 Sherpas, the kind of planes from which paratroopers jump, and UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, he said. Rush said he had just returned from a deployment to Iraq.
After getting coffee on his way to work, Rush was driving through an intersection on Boniface Parkway when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw "a flash of something moving," he testified.
"I see a squad car coming at me. The first thing that goes through my mind is there are no lights on it, or I would've seen it," Rush said. "All I thought was, 'S---, this is going to hurt.' Everything just slowed down. It was like the inside of my truck exploded. ... I could literally see droplets of coffee floating around me."
The car hit his pickup on the driver's side, toward the rear. The pickup "wrapped around" a light pole, Rush said. His door would not open, and he was trying to climb out the sunroof when someone opened his passenger door.
"I was pretty out of it," he said.
Rush at first told medics he did not need to go to a hospital, but later changed his mind when his right forearm started hurting badly. Doctors found no broken bones in a series of X-rays, he said.
It was almost impossible to move when he woke up the next day, Rush said. There were deep bruises in a couple different places on his body, and he was having trouble moving his arm and neck, he said. Every year, Rush said, he has to pass intense physicals to be allowed to fly, so the injuries made him worry that he might eventually be forced out of the cockpit.
"I love my job. I want to do my job until I retire, not until somebody retires me," he said.
Worse than that, though, was his inability to hold his young son in the weeks after the wreck, Rush said. For someone back home from war from his third deployment, that was devastating, he said.
"At that point, I had missed over a third of his life," Rush said, starting to cry on the witness stand.
"Mr. Rush, are you an emotional guy?" Valcarce asked after giving his client a minute to compose himself.
"Not really," Rush said wiping away tears. "That probably hurt the worst."
It was just the most recent incident in Wisel's pattern of bad driving, Valcarce told the jury. The case, he said, underscores an unwritten rule for Anchorage police officers: cops who commit traffic offenses on duty, not while they are responding to an emergency, are not cited.
"What's the whole purpose for writing a ticket when somebody blows a red light?" Valcarce asked Wisel in a videotaped deposition played for the jury Wednesday. "Part of that is to prohibit and prevent further reckless behavior, right?"
"No," Wisel said.
"Do you think that it doesn't stop them from doing it again?"
"You know, I've had more people warned probably than I cite. And hopefully if you stop and talk to them, that'll correct the problem," Wisel said.
Unfortunately for Rush, that had not corrected Wisel's problems in the past, Valcarce said.
In an interview after Wednesday's court hearing, police spokeswoman Dani Myren said the police department handles officers' traffic violations administratively. Other officers investigate, a sergeant writes a report, and the violation goes under internal review, she said. If necessary, a supervisor can then discipline the officer with anything from verbal and written warnings to firing them, Myren said.
"If the officer is subject to internal discipline, that process can result in far more severe consequences than a citation," Myren said.
The police department only issued Wisel a verbal warning after the wreck with Rush, Valcarce said. That was despite what Valcarce described as a history of the officer driving through stop signs or stoplights.
In the video deposition, Wisel admitted to at least three such incidents in which he ran a red light or stop sign, other than the wreck with Rush. Those include another in which he looked down at his computer, Valcarce said. None of the other incidents were serious or involved another vehicle, and Wisel said in the video that it's often difficult to the multi-tasking necessary for police work while driving.
For example, an officer used to have to look up an address and find it on a map, Wisel said. Now, police dispatchers share all kinds of similar information by sending it to an officer's computer, he said.
"It's impractical and impossible to do this job and not look down sometimes," Wisel said.
Severin, the attorney representing the city and Wisel, said the officer admitted his mistake.
"We're not denying that damages should be paid. Punitive damages should not be paid," Severin said. "It wasn't intentional. It wasn't reckless."
Reach Casey Grove at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4589.