The estate of Charity Thome seeks between $5.2 million and nearly $6 million in a federal court civil lawsuit filed against two Pennsylvania state troopers who shot and killed her in March 2020.
Thome was shot on March 16, 2020, by PSP troopers Jay Splain and Matthew Haber after a high-speed, early-morning vehicular chase that began at a home along Heilmandale Road in North Lebanon Township and ended in a field along King Street in Jackson Township.
Court documents state Thome was struck by seven of nine bullets that were shot into her car after it had been forced into the field along King Street following a Precision Immobilization Technique (P.I.T.) maneuver by state police. (A P.I.T. maneuver is a pursuit tactic by which a pursuing car can force a fleeing car to turn sideways abruptly, causing the driver to lose control and stop.)
Seven of the nine rounds were fired by Splain. Thome died inside the vehicle.
The state contends that Splain and Haber were justified and acted within the scope of their employment, and Thome’s estate is owed no damages in the lawsuit.
Jury selection begins Wednesday following an Oct. 20 settlement conference where both sides failed to reach a settlement agreement, according to court documents.
Unable to reach a settlement agreement, attorneys representing both parties recently filed numerous motions requesting rulings by U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner before the trial. Pre-trial motions are common in civil cases.
When both parties can’t reach an agreement on whether certain evidence can be admitted or excluded, they ask a judge to make a ruling before the trial begins. Pre-trial motions help streamline the process and conserve time by eliminating arguments during a trial.
Plaintiff Derek Thome, acting on behalf of Thome’s estate, requests $5 million for “pain and suffering, emotional distress, mental anguish, and sense of impending death” in the moments before the 42-year-old Richland woman died from several gunshot wounds, according to court documents.
Court documents filed late last month also state the plaintiff seeks between $213,753 and $997,584 for past and future lost earning potential, as explained in a report compiled by David L. Hopkins, an actuarial economist based in southeastern Pennsylvania. Hopkins is expected to testify at the trial about his report as an expert witness.
In 2020, the Thome estate filed a federal civil lawsuit against Splain and Haber, the shooters, and the Pennsylvania State Police, alleging that they were not justified in using deadly force against Charity Thome.
The state notes in court documents that the troopers’ actions occurred while on duty and that they are not liable to a civil lawsuit as government employees.
The Thome shooting was the third of four Splain had been involved in while on duty, including two in Lebanon County. A year after the Thome shooting, he was involved in a fourth fatal shooting that saw Andy Dzwonchyk, a 40-year-old Jonestown man, killed in Union Township.
A civil lawsuit filed by Dzwonchyk’s estate over his death was settled by state police in September 2022 for $1.75 million, as LebTown previously reported. LebTown can now confirm that another civil lawsuit, for the 2017 Northampton County shooting of Anthony Ardo, was settled on July 13 for $125,000.
Settlement amounts are based on many variables, and every case is different. The two main variables are liability and damages. Both are needed to have a clear fault and serious injuries or losses and can impact the settlement amount.
Splain’s other three officer-involved shootings will not be permitted as testimony in the Thome case following a Nov. 3 ruling by Judge Conner as part of pre-trial motions.
The motion filed by PSP attorneys sought to prevent the plaintiff’s attorneys, Philadelphia-based Kline & Specter, from discussing the other shootings involving Splain during the Thome trial, and Conner ruled in the state’s favor.
The state noted in its motion that those other shootings were “irrelevant, improper character evidence, highly prejudicial, inflammatory, confusing, misleading and likely to unduly delay trial” in the Thome case.
In Lebanon County, District Attorney Pier Hess Graf found that those two shootings were justified. In February 2022, the local branch of the NAACP filed an ethics complaint against her with the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, alleging a conflict of interest due to her husband being Splain’s supervisor. Hess Graf ended up disclosing a private reprimand over her handling of the case.
At the Thome trial, the plaintiff’s attorneys plan to call at least four expert witnesses to provide their expert testimony concerning the shooting. (A ruling by Conner on a fifth plaintiff expert witness in a pre-trial motion is still pending.)
During the post-shooting investigation, the troopers stated they shouted verbal commands before firing their weapons at her car and that Thome spun the wheels before “ramming” her vehicle into the cruiser of North Lebanon Township police officer Ryan Haase.
Haase had initiated the pursuit and testified during pre-trial depositions that he considered terminating the chase before yielding to PSP once they joined minutes before executing the P.I.T. maneuver.
The plaintiff notes in court documents that neither Splain nor Haber were trained to perform that maneuver, which is a violation of PSP policy, and that they fired their weapons “within no more than two seconds” after the collision with Haase’s vehicle.
The Thome estate contends the trooper’s supervising officer, Cpl. Brian Kruszka, who is listed as a potential witness for the upcoming trial, authorized the P.I.T. maneuver, which is also a violation of PSP policy since Splain, who was driving the vehicle, lacked the authority to perform it, according to the estate’s argument.
The plaintiff believes no verbal commands were issued and plans to call audio/visual specialist Laurence Penn to testify that no commands can be heard on the video. The Thome estate also claims two seconds is not “a reasonable amount of time“ to allow a suspect to meaningfully respond to commands.
The estate’s attorneys will have Haase, who lives in Titusville, Florida, and is no longer a North Lebanon Township police officer, testify via Zoom about his observations.
The defendants’ preliminary statement says that after Thome’s car came to rest, “the driver’s door was open and the troopers anticipated a foot chase.” They started yelling commands like, “Show me your hands,” immediately.
Instead, the state contends she advanced the car forward and while she was ramming her car into the police vehicle, she was simultaneously reaching into the passenger seat/floor area of her car. The officers’ training led them to believe that she may be retrieving a weapon, which led them to fire their weapons at that time.
Splain testified at a pre-trial deposition that he did not see any weapon before opening fire, other than Thome’s car. “Other than her vehicle, which she had weaponized, I did not see another weapon,” Splain told Thome’s lawyer.
A defense document filed for the trial states Charity attempted to break into a residence in Lebanon County and fled when confronted by local law enforcement officers, which led to a 15-minute pursuit that reached speeds over 80 mph through the city of Lebanon and other surrounding areas.
It was also the second attempt by Charity to enter the same residence in as many days. Court documents filed by the state also state Charity was a known methamphetamine user.
Other witnesses listed by the plaintiff include the officers involved that evening, Charity’s mother Deborah Weik, and Charity’s daughters, Chyenne Fisher and Destiny Thome.
As part of its pre-trial court filings, the state has named 20 individuals it may call to testify.
In addition to the plaintiff’s witnesses, the state lists other law enforcement officers not on the plaintiff’s witness lists, Thome’s victims, Lebanon County coroner Jeffrey Yocum, S. Land, an autopsy report pathologist, and several other state police employees believed to be involved in the investigation.
Jamie Borden, an additional witness for the defense, will only be called to testify if the plaintiff has Dr. Christopher Chapman testify as a liability expert witness.
Borden is an expert in police practices, police performance dynamics related to use-of-force decision-making, and action/reaction timing, as well as forensic video analysis, review and examination.
Chapman, a former police officer who the plaintiff says has a doctorate, is an expert in the use of deadly force, P.I.T. maneuvers, and has prior experience reviewing officer-involved shooting cases. The plaintiff has asked Conner to allow his 106-page report to be included in the trial while the state says Chapman used “amorphous national standards,” adding those standards are impossible to define.
The defense also plans to call Kevin Selverian of the PSP Training Academy to testify about state trooper training in the use of force tactics, whether Splain and Haber followed applicable requirements of the department’s Use of Force and Pursuit Policies, and the associated use of force training provided by the department.
Before Wednesday and at any time during the trial, including up to the moment the jury delivers a verdict, both sides could settle the case.
In the meantime, the state has listed in documents it filed in federal court stating the trial is estimated to last between six and seven days.
Following the end of testimony, the jury will be asked to render a verdict. They will determine if the state is liable or if the shooting was justifiable.
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