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A.J. v. Tanksley

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

May 16, 2016

A.J., by and through her next friend Lori Dixon; D.M., by and through his next friend Shannon Mers; B.M., by and through his next friend Shannon Mers; the Estate of Robert Jason Johnson, Plaintiffs - Appellants
v.
Donnell W. Tanksley, in his individual capacity; Matthew J. Waggoner, in his individual capacity; Perri A. Johnson, in his individual capacity, Defendants - Appellees Yolanda Diggs; Bryant Howard, Intervenors Board of Police Commissioners of the City of St. Louis; Richard Gray, in his official capacity as President of the Board of Police Commissioners of the City of St. Louis; Thomas Irwin, in his official capacity as Vice-President of the Board of Police Commissioners of the City of St. Louis; Erwin O. Switzer, in his official capacity as Purchasing Member of the Board of Police Commissioners of the City of St. Louis; Francis G. Slay, in his official capacity as Ex-Officio Member of the board of Police Commissioners of the City of St. Louis; Bettye Battle-Turner, in her official capacity as Treasurer of the board of Police Commissioners of the City of St. Louis, Defendants Deborah Lee Johnson, Intervenor Plaintiff

         Submitted January 13, 2016.

          Appeal from United States District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri - St. Louis.

         For A.J., by and through her next friend Lori Dixon, D.M., by and through his next friend Shannon Mers, B.M., by and through his next friend Shannon Mers, The Estate of Robert Jason Johnson, Plaintiffs - Appellants: James Schottel Jr., Schottel & Associates, Saint Louis, MO.

         For Donnell W. Tanksley, in his individual capacity, Matthew J. Waggoner, in his individual capacity, Perri A. Johnson, in his individual capacity, Defendants - Appellees: Colleen M. Vetter, Attorney General's Office, Saint Louis, MO.

         For Yolanda Diggs, Bryant Howard, Intervenors: Scott C. Harper, Aaron I. Mandel, Brinker & Doyen, Saint Louis, MO.

         Before LOKEN, GRUENDER, and KELLY, Circuit Judges.

          OPINION

         KELLY, Circuit Judge.

         Robert Jason Johnson was killed in a collision between his motorcycle and a car, and his insurance company denied a claim for accidental death benefits. Later, a jury found against his estate and minor children (collectively, the estate) in a wrongful death suit they brought against the driver of the car. The estate then filed the present suit in federal court against the St. Louis Board of Police, various police board officials, and three police officers, alleging civil rights violations stemming from the police's handling of the accident. The district court[1] dismissed the police board and the police board officials from the case and granted summary judgment in favor of the three police officer defendants. The estate appeals the grant of summary judgment, as well as the district court's denial of a motion for sanctions arising out of a discovery dispute. Finding no reversible error in the district court's rulings, we affirm.[2]

         I

         Because this appeal comes to us from a grant of summary judgment to the defendants, we summarize the relevant facts below as favorably to the plaintiffs as the record allows. See Ricci v. DeStefano, 557 U.S. 557, 586, 129 S.Ct. 2658, 174 L.Ed.2d 490 (2009).

         On the afternoon of June 1, 2008, St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department Lieutenant Donnell Tanksley was driving west on Natural Bridge Road in St. Louis in an unmarked police car when he saw a group of motorcycles, also traveling west. In later deposition testimony, Tanksley said that one of the motorcycles, yellow in color, was weaving in and out of the bicycle lane. Tanksley turned on his siren, and in response, the yellow motorcycle pulled into the parking lot of a Shell gas station at the corner of Natural Bridge Road and Marcus Avenue. Tanksley followed the motorcycle into the gas station, but as he picked up his microphone to notify the police dispatcher of the stop, the motorcycle sped off back onto Natural Bridge, this time traveling east. Tanksley testified that he told the police dispatcher that he had tried to pull over a yellow motorcycle for careless and reckless driving, but that it had driven away. A short period of time thereafter -- variously described by Tanksley as " a few seconds" or " a minute or two, or maybe moments later" -- Tanksley proceeded to drive back onto Natural Bridge heading east, and came upon an accident between a yellow motorcycle and a white car at the intersection of Natural Bridge Road and Paris Avenue. The driver of the motorcycle was Robert Jason Johnson. Tanksley testified that he believed the yellow motorcycle involved in the accident was the same one he had pulled over earlier.

         Tanksley testified that he contacted the police dispatcher to report the accident and requested the police department's Accident Reconstruction Unit. A number of other officers arrived at the scene, including Officer Matthew Waggoner. Waggoner talked to Tanksley as well as the driver of the white car, Bryant Howard, and his front passenger, Yolanda Diggs, and prepared an accident report with narrative statements from Tanksley, Howard, and Diggs, and a sketch of the accident scene.[3] Photographs were also taken of the scene. The accident report notes that Johnson's speed and improper lane usage were " probable contributing circumstances" of the accident, and states that Johnson would be subject to charges for " Improper Lane Usage" and " Reckless Driving by Other." Johnson had been taken to a hospital and was unable to give a statement to Waggoner due to his injuries. He died later that day.

         The narrative statement taken from Tanksley and included in the accident report describes his earlier pursuit of the yellow motorcycle, and is in its essentials consistent with the account given above. It specifically notes that Tanksley had told the police dispatcher that the yellow motorcycle had been engaging in careless and reckless driving. Also in the report is Howard's statement that he was traveling east on Natural Bridge Road and in the process of making a right turn onto Paris Avenue, when he saw the motorcycle enter the intersection from the west, driving in the bicycle lane. He said that the motorcycle clipped his front bumper, deflected off, and flipped several times. The motorcycle driver's body hit a utility pole on the side of the street and was knocked off the motorcycle, landing in the street. Diggs's statement in the report is substantially identical to Howard's. Waggoner's supervisor, Sergeant[4] Perri Johnson, spoke to both Waggoner and Tanksley before the report was complete and he later reviewed the report and signed off on it as the reviewing officer.

         In later deposition testimony, both Howard and Diggs said that the statements attributed to them in the accident report were accurate. Both additionally corroborated aspects of Tanksley's story: they said that before the accident, while eastbound on Natural Bridge Road, they had seen a yellow motorcycle traveling west, followed by a car. After the yellow motorcycle popped a wheelie, the car tailing the motorcycle turned on a siren and the yellow motorcycle pulled over at a Shell gas station. Howard testified that the yellow motorcycle he saw pulling into the ...


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