Judge dismisses reckless pursuit portion of crash suit
This car, driven by Michael Sauers, was struck by patrolman Steven Homanko in May 2014. Sauers’ wife, Carola, died from injuries in the crash. TIMES NEWS FILE PHOTO
A former Nesquehoning police officer who was driving 113 mph when he lost control of his cruiser and smashed into an oncoming car, cannot be sued for violating the couple’s constitutional rights, a three-judge federal appeals court panel has ruled.
Michael A. Sauers was severely injured and his wife, Carola R. Sauers, was killed.
The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel, with one judge dissenting, agreed that because the law at the time was unsettled, former patrolman Steven M. Homanko, 29, of Beaver Meadows, could not be held constitutionally liable for Carola R. Sauers’ death because he did not intend to harm her.
“At the time of the crash in May 2014, the state of the law was such that police officers may have understood they could be exposed to constitutional liability for actions taken during a police pursuit only when they had an intent to harm,” the ruling states.
The Oct. 2 ruling, which reversed a previous one that denied Homanko had “qualified immunity,” clarified the law, warning police they could be held constitutionally liable for injuring or killing people during nonemergency pursuits.
“Police officers now have fair warning that their conduct when engaged in a high-speed pursuit will be subject to the full body of our state-created danger case law,” the ruling states.
Qualified immunity protects government officials from civil damages for conduct that “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
The ruling applied only to the immunity portion of Michael Sauers’ lawsuit against Homanko and Nesquehoning police Chief Sean Smith.
Other parts of Sauers’ suit, that Homanko and the borough were negligent and that the borough violated Carola Sauers’ civil rights, will be considered by the courts.
“We emphasize that our decision on qualified immunity does not mean that Homanko is immune from any suit arising from his conduct; he is only immune to a suit alleging the federal constitutional claims made here. He remains exposed to state law tort claims that can, and have been, brought against him, so Sauers is not without a remedy,” the ruling states.
A split ruling
Judge Thomas I. Vanaskie dissented from his colleagues, Thomas L. Ambro and Kent A. Jordan, on the ruling.
“However, because I believe that a reasonable officer in Homanko’s position would have known on May 12, 2014, that the outrageous conduct alleged in this case was unconstitutional, I respectfully dissent from the majority’s finding that Homanko is entitled to qualified immunity,” Vanaskie wrote.
At 6:21 p.m. May 12, 2014, Homanko, a part-time patrolman, was chasing a Dodge Neon, heading toward Jim Thorpe and pushing his 2009 Crown Victoria to 113 mph in the 55 mph zone on Route 209 in Nesquehoning.
Two minutes later, he lost control of the cruiser and crashed into an oncoming small car driven by Sauers, then 64 and a second-grade teacher. Sauers’ wife, Carola, 69 and a physical therapy assistant, sat next to him.
“I just crashed. I just crashed ... I need medics,” Homanko told dispatchers, according to scanner reports.
Carola died of her injuries a short time later; Michael lay in a hospital bed for a month, undergoing multiple surgeries.
Homanko was charged with felony vehicular homicide, involuntary manslaughter, felony aggravated assault by vehicle and related charges.
He pleaded guilty to homicide by vehicle and recklessly endangering another person, and to two summary motor vehicle code violations.
In October 2016, Homanko was sentenced to three to 23 months in jail, followed by two years on probation.
Sauers, now 68, soldiers on in his grief. He declined to comment on the lawsuit, which is ongoing.
He’s pretty much recovered from his injuries.
“Physically, I get around pretty good, although I still have problems with my hip,” he said. “But the emotional, psychological part never ends.”