Civil Jury Finds Officer Negligent in Fatal Crash

$4 Million Awarded to Student's Family

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 18, 2009

A civil jury in Prince George's County awarded the mother of a University of Maryland student more than $4 million Thursday after determining that a county police officer was negligent when he slammed his cruiser into the 20-year-old's car and killed him.

After deliberating for a little less than three hours, the jury of five men and one woman determined that Cpl. Mario Chavez was at fault when he drove at twice the speed limit in a 25 mph residential zone in Bowie and collided with the Chevrolet Beretta driven by Brian Gray in December 2007.

Gray was headed to take an exam in College Park, and his mother, Mary, was a few car lengths behind her son, driving a family friend to DeMatha Catholic High School, when the collision occurred.

The force of the collision obliterated Gray's car. He was pronounced dead at a hospital about five hours after the crash, which occurred shortly after 7 a.m. Dec. 10.

The jury determined that Gray was not at fault in the accident. He was trying to make a left turn when Chavez, who was off-duty, crashed into the driver's side of Gray's car.

"That meant the most to me -- that the jury found that Brian was not at fault," Mary Gray said. "The jury believed in Brian. I'm grateful to the jury. This has never been about money. It's been about accountability and justice."

Gray's attorneys sued Chavez and the county. Chavez was defended by two lawyers with the county's Office of Law, which often represents police officers in civil lawsuits.

Associate County Attorney Shelley Johnson said Chavez had no comment. Johnson said she would explore whether the county had grounds to appeal the verdict.

Chavez was issued a speeding ticket after State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey said there was not enough evidence to charge Chavez with vehicular manslaughter, which in Maryland requires proving that a driver acted with "gross negligence," one of the highest such standards in the country. Last month, Chavez paid the $260 fine for the citation.

An internal police investigation that could result in administrative action against Chavez began after Ivey completed his criminal review. Chavez is currently assigned to an administrative job in which he does not have contact with the public, a police spokesman said.

The night before the crash, Chavez testified, he had accompanied a friend to a nightclub, where he drank three to five beers between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. Chavez said he spent the night at a friend's home in New Carrollton, got about three hours of sleep and was driving to his home in Bowie to see his son, who turned 2 that day.

Gray had stopped at a stop sign and was starting to make a left turn when Chavez slammed into the driver's side of Gray's car, according to trial testimony. Chavez testified that his view of Gray's car was obstructed by shrubs and that he saw it a moment before the collision.

Chavez testified that county police who responded to the crash scene didn't ask him whether he'd been drinking. He was never tested for alcohol or drugs.

In her closing argument, Johnson said Gray was partly to blame for the accident because he didn't yield to Chavez's cruiser.

"He had to stop and yield. He didn't yield. There is no evidence he did yield," Johnson said. "He is partially responsible."

Dana Paul, one of Gray's attorneys, said in his closing argument that if Chavez had been driving at the speed limit, or even 10 to 15 mph above the limit, Gray would have been able to complete his turn unscathed.

"There's no justification for driving twice the speed limit in a city where there are kids," Paul said.

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