A judge dismissed a lawsuit Thursday against Washington County and the sheriff in the death of a Fort Calhoun teenager who was killed in an accident after fleeing a traffic stop in 2017.
Vicki Ahmann filed a wrongful death lawsuit March 25, 2019, against the county and Sheriff Mike Robinson in Washington County District Court in the death of her son, Jackson Potadle, 19. Ahmann alleged the high-speed pursuit violated the department's pursuit policy, contributing to her son's death.
Judge John E. Samson ruled Ahmann had not met the required burden of proof and ordered the petition to be dismissed with prejudice, meaning it cannot be refiled.
Samson ruled that Potadle's contributory negligence was more than 50 percent in causing the accident.
“Jackson's conduct, driving at a high rate of speed, while possibly under the influence of drugs (he had levels of THC in his system), was reckless and negligent,” Samson wrote.
In comparison, he said, Ahmann did not meet the burden of proof to show the deputies' conduct demonstrated negligence “in their balancing the risk levels involved against the seriousness of the incident.”
“That defeats the claim right there,” Ahmann's attorney, James Shaefer, said.
Samson also ruled sovereign immunity was an affirmative defense for the county.
Ahmann's attorney, James Schaefer, said he was aware that would be “a tough thing to overcome.”
“There are two ways to look at the facts — the way we did, which we would have prevailed, and then the way the judge found,” Schaefer said. “I respect his decision. I think Judge Samson gave us a fair trial. We got in everything we wanted to get in. We just thought given the fact that they knew where he lived and the short distance away, they shouldn't have never even started the pursuit. But the judge couldn't get there.”
Potadle died in a high-speed crash Nov. 10, 2017, after he fled from sheriff's deputies in the 2400 block of County Road P43. Deputy Ashley Brammer and Sgt. Jacob Hoffman were preparing to search the vehicle due to the smell of marijuana coming from inside it when Potadle took off north at a high rate of speed.
Brammer attempted, but was unable to catch the vehicle. A few moments later, she came upon the crashed car lodged in a grove of trees in the 4600 block of CR P43, just west of U.S. Highway 75.
The pursuit lasted approximately 90 seconds. The accident happened less than one-quarter mile from Potadle's home.
During the July 1 bench trial, Ahmann's attorneys argued that there was no justification for the pursuit as Potadle was pulled over for speeding. If he had remained at the scene, at most, he would have been cited for possession of residue marijuana.
The court disagreed.
Hoffman testified he “could just smell the overwhelming odor of marijuana coming from the vehicle.”
Capt. Aaron Brensel, who previously supervised the sheriff's narcotics unit, testified he was familiar with Potadle due to a December 2016 traffic stop involving Potadle which led to possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia charges and information he received in September 2017 from a school resource officer that Potadle may have been harboring a runaway juvenile and an Instagram account he was using to sell psilocybin mushrooms and marijuana.
Brensel said that intelligence information was shared with road patrol deputies, including Brammer and Hoffman.
Samson noted Ahmann's own testimony that, prior to the accident, she had heard rumors that the police were looking into her son for selling drugs.
“Jackson's flight from the scene substantially increased the seriousness of his offense. He fled from the scene in a reckless manner while he was being detained by law enforcement officers and in the process put one of the law enforcement officers at risk of serious bodily injury,” Samson wrote. “In addition to this 'seriousness' factor, the court also finds that Deputy Brammer and Sergeant Hoffman properly considered the fact that Jackson potentially had possession of illegal contraband/illegal substances on himself or in the vehicle.”
Samson also addressed other alleged violations in his ruling, including the malfunctioning dash camera in Brammer's vehicle, the training of the deputies in pursuits, the risk factors for the pursuit, Hoffman's supervisory role and the ride-along Hoffman had in his vehicle at the time of the incident.
Samson also acknowledged the tragedy of the accident in the conclusion to his ruling.
“Unfortunately, as plaintiff's counsel aptly quoted: 'There is no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were.'
“However, the law is clear that sympathy cannot be allowed to influence a verdict and the court is required to rely only upon the evidence at trial,” Samson wrote.
Following the judge's ruling, Robinson said he was relieved.
“We've always supported the action of the officers,” he said. “It is a tragedy that a young man lost his life, but it was through his own actions not through the actions or anything to do with the actions of the officers.”