Vermont Trooper’s Family Wins $4.5M Settlement
Eric Daley enters the courtroom yesterday in Vermont District Court in White River Junction in June 2004. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Windsor County Sen. John Campbell speaks with a reporter after the governor's address in Jan. 2010. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Montpelier — The family of a Vermont State Police trooper who was killed while trying to stop a fleeing suspect in Norwich 10 years ago has received a $4.5 million settlement from the state and its insurance carrier, ending nine years of litigation.
Washington Superior Court Judge Robert Bent this week approved a settlement, the details of which are under seal, to compensate Trooper Michael Johnson’s widow Kerrie Johnson and their three children, according to Washington Superior Court records. Johnson died in 2003 when Eric Daley, who led police on a chase after they attempted to check his vehicle for drugs, struck Johnson with his vehicle.
The family, of Bradford, Vt., was represented by Senate President Pro Tempore John Campbell, who also works as an attorney. A private insurance carrier representing Vermont and the state Attorney General’s Office reached the settlement with Campbell in recent days.
“They made the ultimate sacrifice a family can make — their father was killed in the line of duty,” Campbell, D-Quechee, said yesterday.
Campbell is eligible for a large share of the settlement as compensation.
Assistant Vermont Attorney General Keith Aten said that the state’s role in the negotiations had been minimal. The Johnson estate long ago filed for and received $250,000 from a state insurance policy offering financial coverage to state workers injured or killed in motor vehicle incidents involving under-insured drivers, Aten said.
The resulting dispute, in which the Johnson estate claimed that the state’s insurance carrier was liable for additional claims, was between the estate and Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania, Aten said. ICP is an affiliate of insurance giant AIG.
“It closes the matter and the kids get a great settlement,” Aten said. “There’s nothing to object to.”
Johnson left behind a daughter, then 12, and two sons, then 7 and 5.
The insurance’s company’s attorney, Phillip Bixby, of Maine, could not be reached for comment.
Meanwhile, court papers raise the possibility that Vermont State Police might have erred in their pursuit of Daley, despite officials’ assertions to the contrary at the time of Johnson’s death.
Authorities have repeatedly defended the decision to pursue Daley, whom they suspected had drugs in his vehicle after he was pulled over in Thetford and issued a speeding ticket.
“It’s clear after we looked at the Johnson case, it was a case where it was a criminal act that caused his death, and the review of the actual pursuit, as far as policy goes, was fine,” Maj. James Dimmick, the former commander of the Vermont State Police, told the Valley News in 2004. “We took the reconstruction of that incident, and we tore it apart from the point of view of creating some new policy. ... We found in that critique that the troopers did everything that we would have expected them to do.”
In court filings, however, Campbell writes that the insurance company was prepared to defend itself against the lawsuit by arguing that troopers should not have chased Daley.
“Trooper Michael Smith and his supervisor, Sergeant Timothy Page, who jointly initiated the pursuit of Daley, which led to the death of Sergeant Johnson, did so improperly, without legal justification, and in violation of Vermont State Police policy, and, as such, contributed to Sergeant Johnson’s death,” Campbell wrote in a letter to the insurance company, summarizing negotiations in the case. “As a result, (the insurance company) would have sought contribution from Smith and Page individually and the State of Vermont.”
According to Campbell’s summary, the insurance company might have also argued that Johnson himself, who was trying to stop Daley with a spike strip that would puncture his tires, “contributed to his injuries and subsequent death.” Police have previously acknowledged that he did not have enough time to properly deploy the spikes across Interstate 91 .
The insurance company said that if the case continued to trial, it would have sued Smith and Page to secure financial compensation from them, Campbell wrote. The Johnson family, which had been adamant in not making any major concessions from their $10 million settlement target, accepted a lower amount to protect the troopers from getting dragged into the case, Campbell wrote.
“Mrs. Johnson’s agreement to compromise was largely, if not completely, based on her desire to protect the State of Vermont and Trooper Smith/Sergeant Page from contribution,” Campbell wrote in court documents.
On June 15, 2003, Daley was pulled over for speeding in Thetford and briefly detained so police could bring in a canine unit to sniff his car for drugs. Daley fled, and two troopers gave chase. Daley’s Nissan NX coupe reached speeds of 120 mph.
Johnson, who was off-duty and en route to his nephew’s basketball game in Hanover when he heard police scanner reports, pulled over in Norwich and laid out a strip of tire-deflating spikes across the highway.
Daley swerved to avoid the spikes, lost control and struck Johnson, who was thrown 90 feet. Daley escaped into the woods and with the help of friends, fled to Pennsylvania, where he was eventually arrested.
Vermont State Police spokeswoman Stephanie Dasaro could not be reached for comment yesterday. Dimmick, who is retired from the State Police, also could not be reached for comment.
Smith and Page, who are no longer with the State Police, could not be reached for comment. They were both close friends of Johnson and testified during Daley’s sentencing hearing.
Johnson, 39, coached basketball at Whitcomb High School in Bethel and had recently been hired to coach at Oxbow High School in Bradford at the time of his death.
Daley, 33, is currently serving a 26 to 33 year sentence in a Beattyville, Ky., prison for gross negligent operation of a vehicle. (The Vermont Department of Corrections sends inmates with lengthy sentences to Kentucky under a contractual arrangement.)
Though officials insisted that troopers acted appropriately during the chase, State Police nonetheless revised their policies regarding high-speed chases and the deployment of tire-deflating spikes, after the Johnson incident.
Officers were required to quickly notify supervisors to obtain approval to continue a chase, and supervisors were directed to take into account several factors, including the offense committed, whether the driver had been identified, traffic and weather conditions, and risk to others, when deciding whether to green light pursuits.
The specific terms of the settlement were filed under seal in Washington Superior Court. Campbell, a former Florida police officer, requested the seal, “due to the highly sensitive nature of the facts ... and the potential adverse effect disclosure of the terms of the settlement may have on the family,” according to court documents.
Aten took no position on the request, and Bent agreed.
Mark Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3304.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error.
A private insurance carrier representing the State of Vermont was prepared to argue that actions by police themselves contributed to the death of Vermont State Trooper Michael Johnson, who died in 2003 when a fleeing suspect struck him with his vehicle during a chase. That position was summarized in a court filing by John Campbell, who represented Johnson’s family in a civil suit as a private attorney and also serves as Vermont Senate president pro tempore. An earlier version of this article printed in the April 26 Valley News failed to make clear that Campbell was describing the insurance company’s position, not his own.