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No punitive damages in jury award for man hit by cop

Casey Grove
Melvin Rush, the plaintiff, testifies in his civil suit against Anchorage Police Department officer Michael Wisel on Wednesday, June 12, 2013, at Nesbett Courthouse. Wisel drove his police cruiser through a red light on July 15, 2010, severely damaging the pickup truck Rush was driving and injuring the military pilot.
Erik Hill
Anchorage Police Department officer Michael Wisel listens to a video of his deposition during court on Wednesday, June 12, 2013, at Nesbett Courthouse. Wisel drove his police cruiser through a red light on July 15, 2010, severely damaging a pickup truck driven by Melvin Rush, a military pilot driving to work who was injured as well. Rush seeks damages from Wisel.
Erik Hill

An Anchorage jury has awarded $375,000 to a man injured when a distracted police officer's patrol car hit his pickup in 2010.

While the jury ruled Friday in favor of the plaintiff, Melvin Rush, the jurors did not award the $2.5 million in punitive damages sought by Rush.

Rush's lawyer, Jim Valcarce, said 11-year veteran Officer Michael Wisel was looking at his in-car computer at the time of the wreck. Wisel's supervisors failed to deal with his pattern of poor driving, which included other incidents involving distracted driving, Valcarce said.

"My client is pleased with the result, but we all wish the jury would've sent a message of punishment," Valcarce said. "Because that's what punitive damages do. You punish someone and make sure it never happens again."

Valcarce called Wisel's driving "outrageous reckless conduct." The case exposed the fact that Anchorage police officers who commit traffic offenses, while not responding to an emergency, are never ticketed, Valcarce said.

"They do nothing to them. Not a slap on the hand. Nothing," he said. "That's why that was so important. Because of that mind set of, 'I can do whatever I want and nothing's going to happen to me.'"

According to a police spokeswoman, officers face consequences for poor driving that are sometimes more serious than a traffic citation. In the case of his collision with Rush, Wisel received a verbal reprimand, Valcarce said.

The city paid Rush's medical bills and the cost to repair his pickup, Valcarce said. But city attorneys offered Rush only $27,500 for his past and future suffering, the lawyer said. Rush never wanted to go to court, Valcarce said.

"He's embarrassed by the publicity," Valcarce said. "His family thanks God every day he's just alive."

A city attorney handling the case did not immediately return calls seeking comment on the jury award. The city's position at trial was that Wisel was at fault in the wreck but that Rush was not owed punitive damages.

Reach Casey Grove at casey.grove@adn.com or 257-4589.

 

 


By CASEY GROVE
casey.grove@adn.com