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Charleston-area crashes involving speeding firetruck, police cars spark lawsuits

By Andrew Knapp, The Post and Courier

A North Charleston firetruck rushing to a crash site last year at 25 mph over the 45-mph speed limit pulled into a median to get around slower traffic and fatally struck a bicyclist.

A wrongful death lawsuit recently filed by Jihad Abdur-Rahim’s daughter claims the firefighter was driving recklessly and traveling too fast for the conditions.

But a state trooper who investigated the fatality listed Abdur-Rahim, 39, as the only person at fault for the crash, writing in a report that the bicyclist should not have been traveling in the paved median.

When attempts by firefighters and police officers to quickly reach accident and crime scenes result in traffic crashes, they often expose local governments to civil liability. North Charleston alone paid nearly $100,000 in settlements and legal fees related to wrecks in the last three months of 2014, data from the S.C. Comptroller General’s Office showed, though it was unclear how much of that was incurred by emergency responders.

But when it comes to responsibility in traffic court, South Carolina law largely forgives first responders involved in wrecks as long as their vehicles’ lights and sirens were on. In the wrecks that prompted lawsuits in recent years, firefighters and police officers were rarely ticketed, even when they were found to be at fault. In at least one case, an officer faulted in a wreck sued the driver of another vehicle involved.

Mullins McCleod, the Charleston attorney representing Abdur-Rahim’s daughter, Tanisha Goff, has disputed the investigators’ account of the Jan. 9, 2014, wreck. The lawsuit alleges that the firetruck driven by Leslie Fletcher was going more than 75 mph in the 45 mph speed zone as it crossed the median on Cross County Road near Bryhawke Circle. It then entered the oncoming lane, where it hit Abdur-Rahim, according to the documents.

The S.C. Highway Patrol’s report estimated Fletcher’s speed to have been 70 mph and stated that both the truck and Abdur-Rahim’s bicycle were southbound at the time. The truck was about a half-mile from its destination: a traffic accident at 7075 Cross County Road.

McCleod did not comment in response to repeated messages left at his office, on his cellphone and in his email.

Chief Greg Bulanow of the North Charleston Fire Department issued a statement in response to The Post and Courier’s request for comment and for the agency’s driving policy.

Fletcher, the firetruck driver, had been placed on paid leave after the crash, but he was promoted to captain in March 2014, according to the city’s website. Fire Department spokeswoman Bianca Bourbeau declined to comment on Fletcher’s promotion.

“We are deeply saddened by this incident and want to express our sincere condolences to the family of Mr. Abdur-Rahim,” Bulanow said in the statement. “However, there is a pending case regarding this incident, and therefore, we cannot comment on the specifics or the people involved.”

Other crashes involving first responders in the Charleston area also have prompted suits in the past year.

On Dec. 1, Quintin Huger was the passenger in a Mercury sedan that was following the speed limit on Meeting Street when a speeding Charleston police car ran a red light on Line Street and hit the car. Officer Shelby August’s patrol cruiser then spun around and hit another vehicle stopped for the light, according to a crash report.

In February, Huger sued the Mercury’s driver, Christopher Harold Hayes, alleging that Hayes should have seen the police car coming. He also sued the Charleston Police Department, contending that August failed to slow down “the necessary amount for safe operation” and didn’t properly use her car’s flashing lights and siren.

In response, Hayes blamed his passenger for distracting him and for failing to alert him of the incoming police vehicle.

The Police Department also deflected any blame by stating in a court filing that Huger should have yielded to a police car with its lights and siren on.

A state trooper faulted only the police officer, but August was not ticketed, according to court records.

State law allows first responders to break certain traffic rules, such as speed limits and stop signals, as long as they don’t endanger other motorists. The law demands that they slow down for red lights, for example.

It does “not relieve the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons,” according to the statute.

Officers can sometimes use that law to turn the tables on motorists in civil court.

As he rushed to the scene of a May 2013 traffic crash that caused injuries in West Ashley, Charleston County sheriff’s Deputy William Fawcett braked for a red light at Magwood Drive and Paul Cantrell Boulevard. But as Fawcett drove through the intersection, according to a lawsuit he later filed, a woman in an SUV steered into another lane to avoid other cars that had stopped for the deputy and collided with the passenger side of the cruiser. After Fawcett’s car spun around, the SUV hit the cruiser again.

The Highway Patrol faulted only Fawcett for the collision, and he was not ticketed.

In his lawsuit, though, Fawcett said the woman should pay his medical bills and any punitive damages determined by the court. His filing stated that the woman was distracted by the dog in her lap and should have slowed down for his lights and siren, like any “reasonably prudent person” would have done.

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