Father of late BYU student files wrongful death lawsuit

Police officers survey the scene of a car crash that killed a BYU student in Provo on March 16, 2021. The student’s father filed a wrongful death lawsuit March 15 in 4th District Court naming SWAT deputy Joseph Richardson, Utah County, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office and Taco Bell as defendants. (Gabrielle Shiozawa)

The father of late BYU student Joseph Spencer is suing the SWAT deputy who struck his son in a car accident.

Wesley Spencer filed the wrongful death lawsuit March 15 in 4th District Court. The suit names Utah County, the Utah County Sheriff’s Office and Taco Bell as additional defendants, citing negligence and recklessness.

Deputy Joseph Richardson was charged with manslaughter on March 7. That case, which is being prosecuted by the Summit County Attorney, is separate from the civil lawsuit filed by Joseph Spencer’s father.

Richardson was heading southbound on 900 East around 433 North in Provo in his Toyota Tacoma on March 16, 2021, when he collided with 22-year-old Spencer’s Toyota Avalon. Crash data from court documents showed Richardson’s Tacoma going 57.8 mph two seconds before the crash in a 35 mph speed limit zone.

Richardson was specifically instructed to respond with haste to the Sheriff’s office to help deal with a SWAT incident, the March 15 complaint says. His vehicle was unmarked without lights or sirens.

According to the complaint, the county and sheriff’s office knew or should have known SWAT team members under orders to respond hastily to incidents in unmarked vehicles do so with disregard to safety laws.

“If Richardson had maintained his lane of travel in the outside lane and applied his brakes when he first noticed Joseph Spencer, he would not have collided with Joseph Spencer’s vehicle,” the documents say.

The documents claim all law enforcement radio traffic in Utah County is recorded except the special radio frequency the SWAT team uses. “Therefore, we don’t have a record of relevant SWAT radio traffic on March 16, 2021 because Utah County chose secrecy over accountability,” the civil complaint says.

Utah County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Spencer Cannon said he could not comment on pending litigation, but clarified expectations for officers driving unmarked vehicles. “Our policy requires that anybody who is driving who is on duty in any status driving in a personal vehicle is required to obey all traffic laws,” he said.

Wesley Spencer contacted plaintiffs’ attorney Randall Spencer after the accident because he had some indication of wrongful conduct. The two are not related.

“It was a very tragic accident,” Randall Spencer said.

An ideal outcome of the lawsuit would be changes in the mindset of officers who respond to important police business, Randall Spencer said. He said if officers are in an unmarked vehicle without lights and sirens, they need to follow department protocol and traffic laws just like everybody else.

Randall Spencer said he hopes this protocol won’t just be something that looks good on paper, but will actually be followed by deputies and expected of them.

Most importantly, Randall Spencer said his client wants Richardson to be treated just like any other lay person would be treated if they made the same decision.

The lawsuit also claims Taco Bell breached its duty to design and maintain a safe drive-through lane. The complaint alleges that the landscaping obstructs or partially obstructs a driver’s vision when they exit the location.

From Joseph Spencer’s vantage point at Taco Bell, a reasonable driver would not have perceived the closing speed of Richardson’s vehicle and would think it was safe to exit the drive-through lane, the documents say, referencing accident reconstruction analysis conducted by Provo City Police.

“Defendants owed a duty to Joseph Spencer to protect and serve and to operate private unmarked vehicles consistent with all laws and traffic ordinances applicable to people in Utah who operate vehicles on public roads,” the documents say.

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