KENWOOD — Two years ago, University of Chicago police chased and arrested a suspected armed robber after she fled to Ezra and Betty McCann’s backyard in Kenwood.
Now, the couple is fighting off a $500,000 lawsuit filed recently by one of the officers involved in the arrest who claims he fell on a set of steps in their yard and injured his back.
The lawsuit stunned Ezra McCann, a retired Chicago firefighter who said he's at a loss for how he could be sued for the chase that unfolded in front of him in his yard at 4832 S. Dorchester Ave.
“There was no mention to me that someone fell on my property, and then two years later I get a summons saying I’m being sued,” said McCann, who has lived at the home for 25 years.
But U. of C. officer Larry Torres claims in Cook County Circuit Court that the McCanns should have marked as a tripping hazard the three stone steps that sit on a grass embankment between their lawn and their driveway. Torres said the couple could have put up a sign, installed railings or shone a light on the steps.
He is seeking the maximum the McCanns' homeowner’s insurance will pay, $500,000, for the "severe and permanent personal injuries" the suit says he suffered from falling down their stairs while pursuing the suspect in an armed robbery.
Sam Cholke explains why the officer feels he has a right to sue:
“I didn’t invite him onto my property, so from my perspective he was trespassing,” said Betty McCann. “He had no business on my grass; there is a sidewalk and a driveway.”
For Ezra McCann, it’s even more befuddling. The longtime firefighter said he had always assumed the university police were subject to the same rules as city police officers and firefighters.
The “Fireman’s Rule” case law sharply limits when firefighters and police officers can sue for the injuries they suffer while performing their official duties in an emergency.
“In my service, I got hurt four or five times, but I never thought about suing the public I served,” said McCann, who was a captain in the Chicago Fire Department for nearly 30 years.
According to police reports, University of Chicago police officers were in the McCanns' yard on Oct. 16, 2012, chasing three girls involved in an armed robbery.
Two of the girls reportedly approached two people walking in the 5600 block of South Blackstone Avenue, and one of the girls pointed a handgun at them. They took one of the victim’s backpacks and smacked the other in the head with the gun when she refused to give up her backpack, police said. The gun went off, and the two girls fled in a car with a third girl, according to police reports.
University police spotted the three girls just after midnight when they crashed the car in front of 4814 S. Dorchester Ave. while speeding the wrong way down the street, according to police reports.
Ezra McCann said he woke up after hearing the crash and went to his front window and saw a U. of C. officer running up the driveway after a woman and yelling, “'Halt! Stop!'”
“I don’t think he fell; I saw the chase,” said McCann.
He said he watched the officer lead the girl out of his backyard in handcuffs.
Torres declined to comment.
But Torres' attorney, John Grazian, claimed that McCann was actually watching Torres’ partner at the time.
Grazian said Torres looped back from chasing one of the other girls north of the McCanns' home and was cutting across the yard to help his partner when he tried to navigate the three limestone steps in the dark.
“It was his intention to put on the brakes,” Grazian said, but he said Torres' foot got caught in a 6-inch hole at the top of the steps when he tried to slow down. He twisted around and landed on his back on the driveway, Grazian said.
He attributed the long delay in filing suit to a two-year statute of limitations on personal injury claims.
Grazian said the McCanns had an obligation to fix the hole, which could have just as easily injured a dinner party guest or someone invited onto the property. He said that because the couple were allegedly negligent in the upkeep of the property, the fireman’s rule doesn't limit Torres' right to sue.
The McCanns' attorney denied the property was unsafe.
“I disagree; the conditions are safe,” said Joseph Wilson, the couple's lawyer through Traveler’s Insurance. “Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have gone through that property without an incident.”
He said he wasn’t sure whether a judge would consider a university officer to be similar legally to a city officer under the fireman’s rule when the case goes to court.
“I don’t believe the appellate court has ever addressed that,” Wilson said. “That issue is out there.”
Grazian said he didn’t plan to push that argument as the case approaches depositions on Dec. 3. He said he believed the rule did apply to university police, just not in this case.
Christopher Johnston, an attorney with Querrey & Harrow who has handled cases involving the fireman’s rule, said the case law limits firefighters and other public servants from suing for injuries caused by the emergency they are responding to.
He said the law allows firefighters to sue if anyone entering the property would have encountered the same danger, and it was unrelated to the fire. He declined to comment on Torres’ case because he said he was not an expert on how the law affects police officers.
He said the cases are rare because workers' compensation, disability and other benefits will often suffice.
“If they feel their benefits are fine, then it’s fine with them, that’s why these cases don’t come up that much," he said.
U. of C. officials would only confirm that Larry Torres was an officer with the university police force.
Betty McCann said whatever happened with the case, the couple might have to move because their homeowner’s insurance was scheduled to triple next year to nearly $15,000 a year.
“I told Ezra, we’re going to have to sell the house because we can’t afford that,” she said.
Neither of the McCanns said they believed the lawsuit was personal. Ezra McCann said he did not think it was related to his clashes as a fire captain in the 1990s with the firefighters union or City Hall over discriminatory hiring practices at the Fire Department.
While Ezra McCann said he’s applauded the quick response times of university police in the past, he said now he won't call them until he’s sure they have to abide by the fireman’s rule when they’re on his property.
“I don’t want them doing anything for me at 48th and Dorchester,” McCann said.
He said the lawsuit has left him feeling like he’s guilty until proved innocent and that he can’t help but view university police differently now.
“It’s not a sound feeling to know you have an officer in the neighborhood who’s not happy with you,” McCann said.
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