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Kan. medic’s injuries, lawsuit highlight police pursuit crashes

Nine months after Kansas City firefighter/medic Andy Zuniga was injured, the officer involved in had another pursuit crash


Kansas City firefighter Andy Zuniga is seen near the crash location at East 11th Street and Hardesty Avenue on Aug. 10, 2023. He remained angry at how attorneys for the sheriff’s office tried to blame him for the crash.

Emily Curiel/

By Katie Moore , Glenn E. Rice
The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Andy Zuniga activated the emergency lights and sirens on his ambulance as he and a fellow paramedic rushed to a medical call at a McDonald’s in Kansas City .

Zuniga, a 20-year veteran of the Kansas City Fire Department , was heading north on Hardesty Avenue and had just passed 12th Street . He had a flashing yellow light at the intersection.

Out of nowhere, a deputy in a Jackson County Sheriff’s Office patrol car hurled through the intersection and slammed into the ambulance.

“I was struck, blindsided by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department,” Zuniga recalled as he stood near the site of the crash in early August.

The crash left him with several injuries in addition to lingering feelings of anger about the officer’s actions.

Zuniga would later learn that the deputy, Chad E. Burns , was chasing a suspect who had run a red light and was suspected of being impaired.

The chase was one of thousands police have engaged in across the Kansas City area in recent years. In a nine-month investigation, The Star found that innocent bystanders are often the victims when police chases result in wrecks and that officers involved in serious crashes are allowed to return to duty.

Of the known deaths caused by chases in the past two years in the Kansas City metro, eight of the nine people were in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The 2017 crash that left Zuniga injured started, as is common, over a minor traffic infraction and continued when the guidance of public safety experts would have recommended it stop.

It was unusual in that, instead of the innocent bystander’s claims being quietly settled with a payment negotiated by lawyers, it was hashed out in open court in a civil trial last year.

Jackson County jurors watched dashboard camera footage from the crash that showed the violent moment of impact, followed by the ambulance flipping on its side, taking out a light pole and skidding down the street.

“Rollover on an ambulance,” another deputy calls out over the radio.

The crash occurred before Sheriff Daryl Forté took office to lead the agency. Since then, he has made the chase policy more restrictive and the number of pursuits has drastically dropped.

“We care and we’ve heard what the community wants and that’s responsible policing. And part of that responsible policing is ensuring that we don’t jeopardize lives unnecessarily,” he said.

“We don’t randomly fire firearms in a crowded group. So why would it be OK?” Forté said. “Or does anyone think it’s acceptable to drive recklessly or operate a motor vehicle recklessly under any circumstances?”

Deputy Burns, who hit Zuniga’s ambulance, left the sheriff’s office, but continues working in law enforcement in Missouri .

High-speed chase

Around 1:50 a.m. on Aug. 27, 2017 , Deputy Sean Stoff saw a Chevy Tahoe run through a red light on Hardesty Avenue .

As he later wrote in a report, Stoff thought the driver’s actions were “choppy” and “jerky” in a way that suggested they were impaired.

Stoff followed the Tahoe and turned on his lights and sirens near Belmont and 12th Terrace. Shortly after, he saw the Tahoe strike a curb and come to a stop.

The deputy reached the rear side of the vehicle where he smelled marijuana and could see three people in the SUV, but the driver took off. Stoff gave chase, observing that the vehicle ran through a flashing red light and entered oncoming lanes of traffic. Speeds reached 81 to 100 mph, the report said.

The deputy lost sight of the car but was attempting to re-engage when he heard Deputy Burns say he had spotted the vehicle.

Stoff was driving north on Hardesty and happened to get behind Zuniga’s ambulance, which was heading to an unrelated call.

Dashboard camera footage from Stoff’s patrol vehicle shows Burns slam into the ambulance.

After the ambulance came to a stop, Zuniga was able to climb out of the driver’s side window.

“I remember getting out and seeing if I was OK, if my medic was OK, and going and checking on the officer, calling dispatch and telling them to send another ambulance to my previous destination because obviously I couldn’t make that one and that we were involved in an accident,” Zuniga said.

Burns was in and out of consciousness and with help from firefighters, was extricated from the patrol vehicle.

The medic, Cameren Limbach suffered back injuries that have and will continue to cause him pain, a lawsuit said.

Zuniga suffered several injuries including a concussion, torn shoulder, vertigo and a sprained abdomen and wrists.

He said he uses exercise as a form of release from his job where he responds to shootings, car accidents and other traumatic situations. He used to do CrossFit, but isn’t able to anymore because of the injuries he sustained. Other activities like weightlifting have had to be modified.

“I’m limited on what I can do and so it’s a little frustrating because of my shoulder injury, I don’t want to reinjure it,” Zuniga said. “I get dizzy sometimes, still get vertigo.”

“They took that away from me. … I’m a little bitter about that.”

Investigators concluded that both emergency vehicles had their lights and sirens on.

According to a Kansas City Police Department report, Burns had a flashing red light.

The report concluded that Burns had failed to yield or stop, causing the crash.

Lawsuit goes to trial

Zuniga filed a lawsuit in May 2020 against Burns and the sheriff in Jackson County Circuit Court .

The lawsuit alleged Burns drove negligently, failed to yield the right of way and caused the collision.

At one point, Zuniga turned down a $40,000 offer to settle the case, a figure he found insulting.

“I fought back. I said, ‘I’ll take my chances in court,’” Zuniga said. “I have all these injuries and they try to downplay what happened.”

A two-day trial began on June 6 in Jackson County Circuit Court .

During opening statements, attorney John G. O’Connor told the jurors that “although Deputy Burns has the legal authority to go through that light, his decision to do so in this case and how he did it and the speed he did it at was negligent and careless and reckless.”

O’Connor also alleged that Burns had no personal knowledge about the reason for the chase, he did not know the make or model of the vehicle and did not know how many people were in the fleeing car.

“He was involved in more of a wild goose chase,” O’Connor said.

Steven Coronado , who represented the sheriff and Burns, laid the blame on Zuniga.

“Mr. Zuniga never slowed down at the intersection, but instead drove straight through it,” Coronado said.

The jury found Burns at fault and awarded Zuniga $108,000 in damages. In Zuniga’s view, the deputy refused to take any accountability for the crash, which led to the jury’s decision.

But the resolution of the lawsuit did not bring Zuniga peace.

He is still angry, especially at the way the attorneys tried to place fault on him. He says he believes Burns got tunnel vision.

“He blew the light trying to be the hero or whatever it is, but he didn’t focus on his job so he ran the light,” Zuniga said.

But, he adds, he is not a law enforcement officer.

“I can’t tell them how to do their job,” Zuniga said.

The medic in the ambulance, Cameren Limbach , also filed a lawsuit. He received $90,000 in a claim settled in October.

Burns left the sheriff’s office about two weeks after the crash. He did not respond to requests for comment.

He is now employed by the Higginsville Police Department and the Lafayette County Sheriff’s Office, according to the Missouri Department of Public Safety .

Lafayette County Sheriff Kerrick Alumbaugh said he was aware of the crash and checked the status of the civil lawsuit when he was vetting Burns during the hiring process.

The crash was not a concern, he said, and Burns hasn’t had any issues or driving complaints with the sheriff’s office.

Higginsville Police Chief Tom Long did not respond to requests for comment.

Employment continues

About nine months after his dashboard camera recorded the ambulance crash, Stoff became involved in another high-speed pursuit.

On May 9, 2018 , Stoff was assisting in a chase that started near Interstate 435 and Truman Road when another deputy noticed a Buick with a damaged taillight. That deputy ran a check on the vehicle and saw that the license plate was associated with a warrant for a “missing person.”

At Interstate 435 near Interstate 70 , Stoff deployed a GPS tracker on the fleeing vehicle. Once the device, made by the company StarChase, activated, the deputies turned off their lights and sirens and continued to follow the vehicle using the tracking system.

But Stoff continued to drive at a high speed, traveling 71 mph in a 45 mph zone.

Christopher Reed , 28, who was not involved in the chase, was turning in his Chevrolet Caprice at a green light.

Stoff sped through a red light — without his lights and sirens on — and hit Reed.

Reed, who was ejected, suffered extensive head injuries, a spinal injury and a broken clavicle.

Jackson County prosecutors charged Stoff, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of careless and imprudent driving.

In May 2019 , he was handed down a suspended sentence of one year in jail, placed on a year of unsupervised probation and was required to perform 40 hours of community service. He was also ordered to attend traffic school at his own expense.

Sheriff Forté said Stoff was reprimanded. Stoff recently left the sheriff’s office and was hired by the Independence Police Department . He declined to comment.

In a victim’s impact statement read in court, Reed said, “I hope that reckless drivers are held accountable no matter their job title, or who they are so no one else has to suffer like my family and I have suffered.”

Records show the sheriff’s office paid $2 million for the crash in a legal settlement with Reed.

Stoff is not the only Jackson County deputy to stay on the job after hurting an innocent bystander in a police chase.

In November 2011 , Deputy Richard A. Berger was chasing a Pontiac Firebird on US 24 Highway when he struck another driver, Nicolas Miller , of Independence.

Miller suffered disabling injuries including a traumatic brain injury. He had to get metal rods and screws in both of his legs, said attorney Brett Burmeister , who represented Reed and Miller in separate cases.

Records show the sheriff’s office paid Miller $2 million in a legal settlement.

Berger is still employed by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. He declined to comment.

Forté tightens policy

One day after Stoff’s 2018 crash that left Reed injured, Forté, a former Kansas City police chief, took the helm at the sheriff’s office.

In 2019, he changed the agency’s chase policy.

Since at least 2009, the sheriff’s office has limited chases to drivers under suspicion of a dangerous felony and situations where there is an immediate danger to the safety of others.

But the updated policy that went into effect in April 2019 has even stricter language.

“The decision of a Sheriff’s Deputy to pursue and the supervisor to allow the continued pursuit is complicated,” it reads. “Therefore, this restrictive policy balances the need of the pursuit against the risk it imposes.”

It makes clear that “minor traffic violations will not satisfy the clear and immediate danger element.”

The policy also includes more guidelines about StarChase, including a prohibition on deploying the devices on motorcycles, vehicles stopped for only traffic charges and in snowy weather. It also mandates that deputies “drop back to normal vehicle operations, including obeying all traffic laws” once the device has been successfully deployed.

Forté said the policy changes were made to keep deputies and the community safe.

The number of vehicle pursuits have decreased substantially, Forté told The Star recently. According to the sheriff’s office, there were 70 pursuits in 2017 and 42 in 2018. Last year, there were two. Neither resulted in crashes or injuries.

“They have to weigh the risk versus the benefit while adhering to the policy,” he said. “They just can’t randomly decide they are going to do this (engage in a pursuit) because they think it is a good idea. They have to follow the policy.”

Jackson County has considerably fewer chases than surrounding sheriff’s offices.

In 2022, the Clay County Sheriff’s Office recorded 108 chases and 11 crashes while the Platte County Sheriff’s Office reported 114 chases and eight crashes, according to data from both agencies. They allow deputies to chase for any offense.

On the Kansas side, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office had nine chases and the Wyandotte County Sheriff’s Office had four. Both have more restrictive policies.

Forté said that he is proud of Jackson County deputies.

“As I hear them on the air, more times than not, the deputy without a supervisor or commander disregarding the pursuit, they’ll stop on their own. They get it,” he said.

“The risk involved is huge. That’s almost like playing with a loaded firearm when you’re pursuing somebody.”

How we reported this

After two innocent bystanders were killed in a police chase in March in Independence, Star reporters began looking into law enforcement pursuits in the Kansas City area. Over the next nine months, the reporters filed more than 140 public records requests with more than 60 local law enforcement agencies across the metro. They gathered police pursuit policies and documents recording chases, crashes and injuries over a period of five years.

Reporters also obtained investigative case files from serious and fatal wrecks, including dashboard camera recordings. They reviewed court documents from lawsuits and legal settlements. In all, the team examined more than 4,500 pages of documents, allowing them to identify patterns in police pursuits and practices in the metro.

They also spoke with more than 60 people, including innocent bystanders who were injured in police chases, families of victims killed in pursuits, police officials, attorneys and academics who have been studying the topic for decades. They interviewed a person in prison serving a sentence for killing four people in a crash during a police chase in 2018.

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