Tacoma family hurt during high-speed chase blames cops, not robber

Tacoma residents Jerry and Sorina Hoefgen and their six children were injured two years ago when a robbery suspect fleeing police slammed a stolen van into their Chevrolet Suburban on South 38th Street.

In a lawsuit filed this week in Pierce County Superior Court, the Hoefgens pinned the blame for their injuries not on the robber, but on the police chasing him.

Tacoma police officers Jeffrey Smith and Joshua Boyd initiated a high-speed pursuit across busy city streets and continued the chase long after it became dangerous in violation of best practices and the Police Department’s own policies, the Hoefgens contend.

What’s more, the officers’ actions that day reflected “a culture” maintained by the Police Department and city officials that allows officers to pursue suspects at high speeds even when it endangers the public, the lawsuit states.

“This culture needlessly exposes the innocent bystanders of Tacoma to greater danger than the underlying criminal conduct that gave rise to the chase,” the Hoefgens’ attorney, Scott Blair, wrote in a complaint.

The Hoefgens contend they and their children suffered injuries including broken ribs, lacerations, a severe eye injury, emotional trauma, and, in the case of a 14-year-old boy, a traumatic brain injury in the crash, which flipped their Suburban on its top.

The couple seeks unspecified monetary damages for physical injuries and emotional distress.

Tacoma police spokeswoman Loretta Cool said this week the department does not comment on pending lawsuits.

Smith and Boyd remain on the force, Cool said.

The crash occurred the evening of April 5, 2013.

According to criminal court records, Erick Lee Bryan, now 48, robbed an employee of a Tacoma real estate office at gunpoint and stole her van.

Smith was dispatched to the scene and spotted a vehicle matching the description of the stolen van stopped at a traffic light nearby, court records show. Smith got out of his vehicle with his gun drawn and ordered the driver out of the van.

Instead, the driver, later identified as Bryan, took off.

Officer Boyd then picked up the chase, which was described in a declaration of probable cause used to charge Bryan with a litany of crimes:

“The Tacoma Police Department officers pursued the defendant with their vehicles’ lights and sirens activated. The traffic at this time was heavy. The streets were wet. At one point the defendant drove through a roundabout at an unsafe speed. At that point the defendant nearly struck a tree. The defendant again accelerated away from the pursuing officers. The defendant drove past people in an alley at a high rate of speed.”

The chase ended when Bryan sped out of the alley and onto 38th Street, where the van T-boned the Hoefgens’ Suburban.

He then got out of the van and ran off but eventually was tracked down and arrested.

Bryan ultimately pleaded guilty to first-degree robbery, three counts of vehicular assault and one count of felony hit-and-run and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

In their lawsuit, the Hoefgens contend Boyd and Smith should have handled the pursuit much differently.

Smith should have waited for Boyd to arrive, and the two officers could have tried to box Bryan in while he was stopped at the traffic light, the lawsuit states.

Had that failed, they should have just let Bryan drive off, the Hoefgens contend.

“Had the officers elected to call off the pursuit, the defendant would have more likely than not slowed down after two blocks, stopped the car, exited the driver’s door that had already been opened and fled on foot without further endangering any citizens,” their lawsuit states.

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644, @TNTAdam