NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — A lawsuit is looming over a deadly crash involving a Norfolk police cruiser earlier this year.
The crash happened on May 7 on Hampton Boulevard, at the intersection with Surrey Crescent.
Norfolk police Officer Justin Benson was responding to a shooting call when a car pulled out at Surrey Crescent. The cruiser T-boned the car driven by 79-year-old Robert Crittsinger. He died at the scene.
Attorney Gary Byler is filing a wrongful death lawsuit. He says Officer Benson acted negligently and recklessly, and it was the speed he was going — that is outside Norfolk police policy — which led to Crittsinger’s death.
Crittsinger was beloved by daughter Ruth Washburn, who said back in May, “I just get so sad for my dad, because it shouldn’t have happened like this. He was so gentle… it is so surreal. I didn’t know what to think. My mind was trying to figure things out: what exactly I’m supposed to be doing next.”
The family hired Byler. He says the family has waited long enough for answers.
“The family should have the right to know. This is a public officer paid for by the public dollars. He knows we can get the information if we file a lawsuit. It’s just disappointing they are requiring us to file a lawsuit to get the information.”
Norfolk police say Crittsinger pulled out in front of Officer Benson as he was on his way to a shooting call, going 76 miles per hour in a 35 mile per hour zone, 10 On Your Side found in an affidavit for search warrant. According to police policy, the general order for operations of police vehicles for a Priority 1 response code states that:
With due regard for safety, emergency lights and siren must be used at all times when operating a vehicle in excess of the speed limit, or contrary to other traffic regulations, regardless of the time of day or the location. Speed limits will not be exceeded by more than 15 mph, except during pursuits.”
This issue will be part of the investigation into whether Officer Benson was in a “pursuit” to get to a shooting scene. If not, then the policy appears to be in conflict to Benson’s speed determined by police.
City Attorney Bernard Pishko says, “If there is civil litigation, then the question will turn upon whether the officer on Hampton Boulevard had the right of way or Mr. Crittsinger had it when entering from a side street.”
Byler adds, “For anyone going double the speed limit, what Mr. Crittsinger could not predict, or reasonably expect that someone would be going over 50 miles over the speed limit, which is almost three times the posted speed limit.”
The investigation will also examine whether Benson’s speed went into the 90 mile per hour range shortly before the impact.
Byler wants information and accuses Pishko of stonewalling in an email the city attorney wrote. It reads: “The city attorney has met with Mr. Byler whenever requested and will continue to do so.” Byler responded, “That is not true, I have never met with the city attorney of Norfolk.”
That Pishko email was sent three days after Byler got a letter from Deputy City Attorney Michael Beverly, saying, “We will meet with you as long as no criminal charges are filed.”
After WAVY-TV’s report on this story aired Tuesday evening, Pishko emailed 10 On Your Side’s Andy Fox, saying Byler can see the only known video from a home security camera, Byler has been told the video does not show the actual crash and Byler says he has been told there was no dash-cam video in the police cruiser.
Byler says he thinks that is no consolation at all, but also wants more information.
“We want the black box information. We would like to know when the lights were activated, how fast he was going before the collision, how fast he was going at the point of impact.”
Byler says it is clear he won’t get to see any of that until after the Commonwealth’s Attorney decides not to file charges.
WAVY News called to get an update on the criminal investigation into this incident, and Amanda Howie, the Director of Communications for Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Greg Underwood, emailed us:
The role of this Office in this matter is to conduct a legal review to determine whether a criminal charge should be initiated. Our legal review is nearing an end and when appropriate our Office will inform the involved parties, including the Norfolk Police Department and the Crittsinger family, of our decision.
In each legal review we conduct, especially of matters involving the loss of life, being thorough is an important part of our work and each matter is unique; therefore, setting a timetable for a legal review decision isn’t appropriate. During this process, we’re certainly mindful of the interests and needs of family members who’ve lost loved ones and appreciate the waiting can be difficult for them.”
In the end, Byler says after six months, he and the family are not getting the information from the city he needs. It has frustrated him, and that’s why they are proceeding with legal action.
“This is not so much about money as much as it is the right thing be done, and so far, we are being stonewalled completely.”
Benson has been on administrative duty since the crash.