FOX16 Investigates: Family fights for justice after car crash caused by police officer

Investigates

SHANNON HILLS, Ark.- A Central Arkansas mom feels like state law is failing her family after she was severely injured in a car crash caused by a Shannon Hills Police Officer.

Its been almost a year since the crash and Heather Cross is living with lifelong disabilities, but she can’t afford the medical care she needs. Her medical bills are already over $1 million, but the most she could get for the crash was $25,000 from the police department’s limited liability car insurance.

The way it stands now the Cross family says their only other option is to file for bankruptcy since there’s a state law blocking the family from ever suing the officer or the city.

Meanwhile, both the city and officer never had to pay for those consequences since they’re protected by immunity laws.

“We never asked for this,” her Heather’s husband, Matt Cross, said, “This is the life that we were forced into. We don’t have the ability to come out of this.”

Matt Cross was forced to quit his job to be Heather’s full time caregiver.

“I help her take her medications, I help her take showers,” Matt Cross explained.

It’s part of the domino effect that the crash started, throwing the family’s life into reverse. One of those losses was Heather’s hair salon in downtown Shannon Hills, the family was had to shut it down to focus on Heather’s recovery.  

“We live off of social security disability, We go up and have to file for food stamps to make sure my family is fed,” Matt said.

In September 2019 Heather stopped on County Line Road. It was early afternoon and she was waiting to turn into Davis Elementary to pick up her 5-year-old son.

At the same time, Shannon Hills Police Officer Jose Padilla was responding backup to a call and headed her way. State Police crash records show how Officer Padilla drove in the wrong lane and crashed head-on into Heather.  

“The impact was so hard it blew everything inside her car out the back glass,” Matt recalled. “I threw my hands up and said how can this happen in a school zone.”

Heather suffered severe injuries that kept her in the ICU for weeks. Strokes have now left her with permanent brain damage to the point talking is a challenge.  

“She lost the ability to be the mom that she wanted to be,” Matt added.

On the crash report, State Police noted Officer Padilla is “at fault for careless and prohibited driving.” Officer Padilla never got a ticket for that.

When questioned about the investigation State Police sent us the following statement:

The Arkansas State Police completed its investigation of the crash in a timely manner.  The investigative report cited the Shannon Hills police officer as being at fault.

No crash reconstruction investigation was necessary since the police officer acknowledged he was exceeding the speed limit without all emergency equipment being in operation.

Consistent with standard operating protocol within the Arkansas State Police, a motor vehicle crash investigation that involves a victim who has sustained life-threatening injuries is submitted to the prosecuting attorney of jurisdiction to decide whether a violator citation should be issued immediately or delayed. By issuing the citation immediately, the possibility of “double jeopardy” arises should be victim die, preventing the prosecutor from filing a misdemeanor or felony charge.

Arkansas State Police

The investigation ended a few weeks after the crash when the State Police report was sent to the Saline County Prosecutor’s Office.  

Prosecutors never filed charges. In a phone call with us, Saline County Prosecutor Chris Walton explained that not all car crashes result in charges and this was one of those cases.

We checked with the Shannon Hills Police Department to see if it was handled internally, but were told Officer Padilla has “no disciplinary history.” The Shannon Hills Police Chief also declined to comment.

“Jose Padilla did not have to face justice and is it because he’s a cop? Is it because cops are above the law?” Matt questioned.

It’s questions the Crosses don’t have a lot of time to think about since their focus is on the growing stack of medical bills they don’t know how to pay for. In just her first two weeks at the hospital Heather’s bill was over $200,000. The total costs have now added up to over $1 million.

 “Why do we have to pay the millions of dollars in medical bills?” Matt questioned.

It’s a cost the city of Shannon Hills and Officer Padilla will never have to pay.

A settlement record shows all the family got was $25,0000, paid for by the city’s limited liability car insurance.

All of this is because Arkansas immunity laws mean the officer and city can’t be taken to court.

The Cross  family’s lawyer, Michael Crockett says it all goes back to the state constitution.

“The state of Arkansas shall never be a defendant in any of the courts,” Crockett read off the law.

Basically that law means officers are protected from being sued for what they do while they’re working. That’s something Crockett wants to change.

“You do away with that you’re going to find that cities are going to get the insurance coverage they need to protect the people that are victimized,” he explained.

Getting rid of immunity laws isn’t a new idea, Attorney Josh Silverstein typed up a proposal to amend the law and brought it to lawmakers. in part arguing the law is antiquated.

“Sovereign Immunity originated about 600 to 700 years ago in England and it was the idea that the King as sovereign is immune in the King’s own courts,” Silverstein said,

England got rid of the law and almost every state passed amendments to limit it. Arkansas remains one of three states with the most restrictive immunity laws, but Silverstein says his critics are concerned about lawsuits.  

“I think it is much more important that we have people suing when they have valid claims, and take the frivolous lawsuits, take the bad with the good,” he added.

While Silverstein’s amendment got some traction, it ultimately failed in last year’s legislative session.

For the Cross family that means they’re taking a backseat in the Arkansas court system.

“It opens the door for the next person, the next family to be dealing with exactly what we’re dealing with,” Matt Cross said.

Heather now does rehab at home, forced to stop getting treatment that her doctors recommended all because medicare won’t pay the bills.  

“We cannot give her the medical care that’s necessary for her to recover,” Matt Cross added.

It’s an impossible situation the family was thrown, all without ever hearing from the officer who caused the crash and is now protected by his badge.  

“What do you want Padilla to know?” Matt Cross asked Heather Cross.

“Why did he do this?” she responded.

We reached out to Officer Padilla and his attorney but haven’t heard back.

Heather recently had a surgery to repair some of her injures.

The Crosses say they’re getting ready to file for bankruptcy since they just can’t afford Heather’s medical bills.

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