Relatives of a woman killed last month when a state-owned van driven by a prison inmate plowed into her minivan filed a $5 million claim Thursday against the state of Nebraska.
Joyce R. Meeks, 47, was driving home from work the night of June 25 when the Ford Econoline van, which witnesses said was speeding and swerving, crossed into her lane on Van Dorn Street near 18th Street. She died at the scene.
Van driver Jeremy Dobbe, 35, is back in prison.
On Thursday, Meeks' family hosted a news conference before filing the claim at the State Office Building. State officials will have six months to respond before the family can sue.
"I just don't want my mom's death to go under the rug somewhere and people to forget," said her son Martell Buchanan, 28.
Meeks, a nurse’s assistant, moved with her family to Lincoln to escape the violence of inner-city Chicago, Buchanan said in June.
“Everything that occurred stemmed from a decision they made,” he said Thursday. “Someone had to sign off on something. Someone had to give him the keys.”
The Corrections Department declined to comment on the tort claim or a possible lawsuit, but did offer condolences.
“Our hearts go out to the Meeks’ family,” spokeswoman Dawn-Renee Smith said in an email.
Chicago attorney Timothy Cavanagh said the family wants justice, and it wants to know why officials let an inmate with a history of drunken driving, reckless driving and drug convictions on the road.
Prison officials ended the 28-year-old inmate driving program two weeks ago after the accident, but inmates on work release still can drive their own cars to and from work, and they can drive state-owned vehicles on state property.
Buchanan said he was at his mom’s funeral in Chicago when he heard officials ended the program, and the news made him happy.
“It’s probably the first time I had a smile on my face,” he said. “That was a big step to closure.”
The lawsuit against the state, the Corrections Department and Jeremy Dobbe is another, he said.
“We’ve got to just move forward and have the state of Nebraska show some sort of responsibility.”
Because the state paid Dobbe to drive fellow inmates at the Community Corrections Center-Lincoln to and from their jobs, the family must file the tort claim before it can pursue a lawsuit.
The State Claims Board, comprising directors of the state insurance and administrative services departments and the commission of labor, can pay the claim, deny it or agree to pay a lower amount.
If the relatives are unsatisfied, they can sue the state in Lancaster County District Court, said Lincoln attorney Vince Powers, who specializes in civil cases.
The state probably will admit liability, Powers said, and then it’s up to a judge to put a dollar figure on the comfort, companionship, services and financial support Meeks would have given her relatives had she not died.
Cavanagh said he’s suing for $4 million for her husband, Leonard, and her three children.
The extra $1 million is for the pain, suffering and fear that Cavanagh said Meeks suffered before she died, along with any medical costs related to the crash.
The family asked for $5 million because the tort claim requires someone to ask for a specific amount of money, Cavanagh said, but the figure is just a placeholder, and relatives may ask for more in a lawsuit.
There’s no ceiling on how much money a judge can award to a plaintiff who sues the state, Powers said.
As far as the Meekses’ lawsuit is concerned, it doesn’t matter if Dobbe was drunk or high during the crash, he said. Negligence is negligence.
Lancaster County Attorney Joe Kelly said he has Dobbe’s toxicology results, but won’t release them until he decides what to charge him with.
Joyce Meeks' husband stood quietly next to Buchanan on Thursday, then sat patiently while the lawyers and Buchanan filed the tort claim.
When he did speak, it wasn’t about the state, the inmate driving program or the lawsuit.
“This is just a really difficult time without my partner, my soul mate, my everything," he said softly.