Family of woman killed by inmate driver files $5 million claim -
Published Friday, July 19, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 3:17 am
Family of woman killed by inmate driver files $5 million claim

LINCOLN — A $5 million claim filed over a Lincoln woman's fatal crash with a prison inmate driver will not end her family's grief.

But the family of Joyce Meeks hopes it will make the State of Nebraska accept responsibility for putting Jeremy Dobbe behind the wheel of a state vehicle, despite two drunken driving convictions and several other driving offenses.

Meeks, 47, died June 25 when a van driven by Dobbe slammed nearly head-on into her minivan on a residential street in Lincoln.

“No amount of money can really make you feel better,” said Martell Buchanan, one of Meeks' three children.

But, he added, “I don't want my mom's death to go under the rug somewhere and be forgotten.”

The family filed the tort claim Thursday with the State Division of Risk Management. The filing was a preliminary step in bringing a wrongful death lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning referred calls to Shannon Anderson, the state risk manager.

Anderson declined to comment, saying the claim will have to be investigated.

The claim named the State of Nebraska, the Department of Correctional Services, corrections director Robert Houston, the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln, corrections employees involved in the inmate van driver program and Dobbe.

The request for damages will go before the State Claims Board, which can approve, deny or take no action. If the board denies the claim or takes no action within six months, the family can then file a lawsuit in district court.

Dobbe, 35, has a history of drug abuse and a poor driving record that included two convictions of driving under the influence of alcohol. He was serving five to seven years in prison for possession of methamphetamine.

Witnesses said the van was swerving and speeding through a Lincoln neighborhood shortly before the crash. Meeks, a nurse assistant and mother of three, died at the scene.

The claim said Dobbe drove in a “negligent and reckless manner” that caused the accident. It also said he was believed to have been driving the van while intoxicated or under the influence of illegal drugs.

Tim Cavanagh, the Chicago attorney representing the family, said information about drugs and alcohol remains to be verified. Authorities are awaiting the results of blood and urine tests on Dobbe.

Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly said this week that he does not expect to make a decision on charges against Dobbe until next week, at the earliest.

Damages listed by the family include Meeks' “conscious prefatal injury fear and apprehension of impending death,” as well as the loss of her financial support and companionship.

Meeks' husband, Leonard, said the days since the crash have been difficult ones “without my partner, my soulmate, my everything.”

Cavanagh said the amount sought in a lawsuit could differ from the $5 million. He said that number was used as a matter of procedure.

“We're going to seek all damages allowed by the State of Nebraska,” he said.

Buchanan said one of the family's goals already has been met. Corrections officials ended the inmate van driver program 10 days after his mother's death.

The program, which allowed inmates to drive state vehicles in the community, was launched in 1985.

At the time, Houston declined to comment on whether department policy had been followed when Dobbe was approved to work as a driver.

But he expressed confidence in the professional judgment of the corrections staff charged with sorting through inmates' criminal, driving and substance abuse history.

State policies said “special attention” was to be paid to an inmate's driving record and chemical abuse history before that individual could be cleared to work in the program.

As of June, a total of eight inmates were authorized to drive six vans from the state's Community Corrections Center-Lincoln. Three drivers operated three vans out of a similar center in Omaha.

The inmates drove other inmates to work-release assignments when city buses were not available. Although there had been other accidents involving inmate drivers in the past, this was the first death.

Contact the writer: Joe Duggan    |  

Joe works in the Lincoln bureau, where he helps cover state government, the Legislature, state Supreme Court and southeast Nebraska.

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