Arkansas law leaves family fighting disability and debt

Investigates

SHANNON HILLS, Ark. — A central Arkansas mom claims a state law is preventing her from getting the help she needs after she was severely injured in a car crash caused by a police officer.

In September 2019, Heather Cross was stopped on County Line Road, waiting to turn into Davis Elementary school to pick up her then 5-year-old son. According to an Arkansas State Police crash report, Officer Jose Padilla was responding as back up to a call, when he crossed into Heather’s lane and hit her head-on pushing her car into a tree.

“Changes her life forever,” said Heather’s husband Matt Cross. “I listened to those nurses and those doctors that came in that said, we don’t know, we don’t know if she’s going to live.”

Now two years after the crash Heather required multiple surgeries and is still trying to recover from her injuries, which include a traumatic brain injury.

“When your son says mom we don’t have the fun like we used to, it just breaks my heart,” Heather said.

Almost a year after the crash, Matt told Fox 16 Investigates in an interview, “We live off of social security disability. We go up and have to file for food stamps to make sure my family is fed.”

He says that reality hasn’t changed.

Before the crash, Heather owned a hair salon which the family was forced to close. Matt had to quit his job as an engineer to be Heather’s full-time caregiver since the family says they can’t afford the long-term care Heather needs.

Currently, Heather’s medical bills are well over $1 million. The only payment from the city the family received was $25,000, the maximum amount allowed under the city’s limited liability car insurance.

“I couldn’t even get them to pay the ambulance bill,” Matt said. “We don’t have the ability to continue to self-pay for all this rehab.”

No charges have been filed in the case. Arkansas State Police investigators found Officer Padilla at fault. The department sent the following statement:

The investigation of the motor vehicle crash involving Heather Cross and Jose Padilla was submitted to the Saline County prosecuting attorney to determine whether a criminal charge should be filed based on the state police findings.  Submissions of investigative reports to a prosecutor is standard protocol for a state trooper assigned to a highway crash involving serious injury or death.  (*See email directed to Susan El Khoury, July 8, 2020, subject line, kark_klrt_elkhoury_shannon hills crash investigation_07082020)

The Arkansas State Police has not been made aware of any criminal proceeding in the matter.

The investigative record remains intact, and nothing has changed relating to the facts or circumstances arising out of the investigation that might lead the state police to change or amend our statement provided for your July 14, 2020 reporting.

Should the Cross family file a civil action against Officer Padilla or the City of Shannon Hills seeking monetary damages beyond the amount already awarded, the state trooper who investigated the crash would be subject to subpoena and could be called to testify to his investigative records.

The Saline County Prosecutor decided not to file charges, something the prosecutor and police department declined to comment about.

“There is no doubt that that badge is what has kept that officer from being held accountable for his actions,” Matt said.

The Cross family keeps pointing to Arkansas’ sovereign immunity law, which says the state can’t be sued in its own courts. The law dates to colonial times and was set up to protect England and the King. Most states amended immunity laws. Arkansas remains one of three states with the strictest immunity laws.

Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) is behind a push to change that law.

“It needs to be fixed,” Clark said. “We need to be able to sue the state.”

Earlier this year he filed a bill to end sovereign immunity, but the bill failed to make it out of committee.

 “How do you write it to make sure you take care of that, but then you don’t take care of every other little thing that you just have people going to court every day suing the state,” Clark added.

Clark says he plans to reintroduce a bill dealing with sovereign immunity, but he’s also calling on other lawmakers to step in saying this should fall in one of the top three issues that should be tackled in the next legislative session.

However, he says one thing is clear, what happened to Heather needs a closer look.

“It doesn’t sound like justice,” Clark said. “It doesn’t sound like what would happen for instance if I was the one who hit them, so it doesn’t sound like what should happen if the state of Arkansas does it.”

Heather knows she needs life-long help but may never get the financial help she needs,

“That 7-year-old is the reason I’m still here, that’s my purpose,” Heather said, talking about her son Hunter.

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