Braking Point…DHS Social Worker Wrongly Criminally Charged for a Car Accident When the Brakes Failed Cleared of all Criminal Charges. She Then Successfully Sues the City for False Arrest.
A DHS Social Worker Contends The City Loaned Her A Dangerous Vehicle.
Department of Human Services (DHS) social worker Dawn George was driving a city-owned 1999 Dodge Caravan on North Broad Street when its brakes completely failed, according to her complaint. After careening through traffic for four blocks, George ultimately crashed at the intersection of Cecil B. Moore Avenue, critically injuring another driver and totaling both vehicles.
George, who was subsequently charged with aggravated assault, is suing the investigating police officer for false arrest. The case is scheduled for trial this month. An exact court date hasn’t yet been assigned.
As part of their job requirements, DHS social workers frequently drive cars in the city’s fleet. They use the vehicles to visit the homes of potential foster parents, check in on children who are already placed, and even drive children to doctor and therapy appointments. If a child is placed with relatives who live three hours away from Philadelphia, a social worker must make that long-distance drive to visit the home.
Just one day prior to George’s March 25, 2003, accident, two other DHS social workers submitted a written complaint about the van to the agency’s Transportation Unit.
Erica Hall and Ramona Fleming used the Caravan for work, and had a child riding along with them. Upon returning the vehicle, the women submitted a report to the DHS Transportation Unit stating that the brakes on the van needed to be repaired.
In her August affidavit, Fleming recalled that she and Hall had to push the brakes “all the way to the floor”in order to slow down. Fleming said, “it took twice as long for the car to stop compared to brakes that were actually working normally.”
Fleming also testified that when Hall handed the return information form to the Transportation Unit, she mentioned to the counter person that the brakes on the van “were not working.”
Regardless, the Transportation Unit signed out the van to George the following day when she requested a vehicle to drive to a pre-placement interview. On her way back to the office, George started to fill out the standard pool car form. On that document, George noted that the brakes felt “like they were scraping, maybe rotors.”
Soon after jotting down her comments, as George drove south past the intersection of North Broad and Diamond streets, she pressed the brake pedal, but the van wouldn’t stop. The van rear-ended a Toyota Corolla. The force damaged the Toyota’s trunk, and caused the sedan to sideswipe another vehicle.
At that point, George says, she was furiously pumping the van’s brakes, but the vehicle wasn’t slowing down. In an effort to avoid traffic, George recalls steering the car into the center lanes reserved for turning.
“But the van wouldn’t slow down, and I was swerving in and out of traffic and blowing through red lights-I could hear all the car horns honking,”she says.
The DHS vehicle barely missed hitting a pedestrian before finally ramming into a Lincoln Continental traveling westbound on Cecil B. Moore Avenue, says George’s attorney James Funt of the firm Greenblatt & Funt.
The “violent collision”sent the Lincoln careening into parked cars near the intersection, totaling the vehicle and causing its driver “serious neck and back injuries,”according to a deposition from the driver of the Lincoln.
George, who lives in Overbrook, says she was “terribly shaken up”as she emerged from the van. “I wasn’t even sure I was alive after the final impact, not until I opened my eyes and saw all the cops and people screaming.”
An eyewitness at the scene told police that he saw the van’s brake lights illuminate, indicating that George was pressing down on the pedal to no avail. Another witness told a cop at the scene that he saw George repeatedly pumping the van’s brakes and honking the horn in an apparent attempt to warn other drivers.
An ambulance rushed George to Hahnemann Hospital, where doctors treated her for back and neck injuries.
On June 10, 2003-nearly three months after the accident-Philadelphia police officer Terry Wallace issued a warrant for George’s arrest. The warrant included charges of aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person, simple assault, criminal mischief and accidents causing serious bodily injury.
Wallace requested “high bail”even though George is a 38-year-old single mother with no criminal history, Funt says.
George immediately turned herself in. She was jailed for 24 hours while being criminally processed. Members of her church collected nearly $1,000 to post bail because George couldn’t scrape together the money herself, Funt adds.
During a preliminary hearing Oct. 6, 2003, Municipal Court Judge Seamus McCaffery dismissed all criminal charges against George due to “lack of evidence.”
“She was treated as a common criminal from the time of her arrest until her hearing, despite that she fully cooperated and was clearly distraught,” Funt says.
Divisional deputy city solicitor Jeffrey Scott, who is representing Wallace in the civil suit scheduled for trial, says the Law Department doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
But during the Oct. 6, 2003, criminal hearing, Wallace testified that after reviewing documents, he determined Fleet Management had repaired the van’s brake pedal less than 24 hours before the accident. He said it was in “good condition.”Wallace also testified that George had made “a controlled move”and stepped on the gas pedal.
George is asking for $375,000 in damages from the city. But she says what she truly wants is for the city to take dangerous cars out of its fleet.
“I’d simply like this to never happen to anyone else,” she says. “At DHS we drive children around every day. And I haven’t noticed any improvement in the quality of cars signed out since my accident.”
Philadelphia city government owns more than 6,000 vehicles. That figure includes garbage trucks, police cars and tow trucks.
Licensed to practice in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with headquarters in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Greenblatt, Pierce, Engle, Funt & Flores LLC specializes in the areas of criminal law, traffic law violations, civil law, corporate law, family law and employment law. With over 100 years of combined legal experience, the multi-disciplinary, full service law firm represents individuals, families and businesses with cost-effective counseling and litigation, including homicide and assault, traffic offenses, DUI/DWI, juvenile law, domestic relations, divorce, custody, employment and employee benefits issues, civil rights, domestic abuse, federal criminal defense, white collar crimes, sex crimes and cyberspace crimes. Greenblatt, Pierce, Engle, Funt & Flores LLC has law offices in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Haddonfield, New Jersey. For more information on Attorney James Funt, please access his profile.