OAK LAWN, IL — The Village of Oak Lawn and former village manager Larry Deetjen have been slapped with a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of a pedestrian who was grievously injured after Deetjen allegedly hit the man with his village-owned vehicle and then continued driving without stopping to render aid. The lawsuit was filed Monday in Cook County Circuit Court on behalf of the injured pedestrian, Mark Berkshire, by his guardian Ashleigh Cortes.
The 70-year-old Deetjen had been attending the wake for the father of a village employee at Schmaedeke Funeral Home the evening of Oct. 10, 2019. Around 8:30 p.m., Chicago Ridge police said Deetjen left the funeral home and was driving his village-issued Crown Victoria northbound on Harlem Avenue, when he struck the 48-year-old Berkshire in the roadway near Harlem and 101st Street in Chicago Ridge. Berkshire was knocked unconscious and taken to Advocate Christ Medical Center.
The injured pedestrian’s attorney, Victor Henderson, released a written statement, accusing the village of not contacting Berkshire’s family to offer any assistance. According to the civil complaint, Berkshire suffered a fractured skull, brain swelling and other injuries.
“After careful consideration, the family of Mark Berkshire decided to file suit against the Village of Oak Lawn and Larry Deetjen .... The family regrets to report that Mark Berkshire remains hospitalized and in serious condition as his medical bills continue to mount each day,” the statement reads. “Mr. Berkshire has undergone several surgeries with more to come. The family remains hopeful that the Village and Mr. Deetjen will soon admit their role in this tragedy. Given Mr. Deetjen’s driving history, the Village knew that this was an accident waiting to happen. Unfortunately, Mr. Berkshire is the victim of the Village’s willful negligence.”
The accident was apparently captured on video from nearby businesses. Deetjen was aware that he “struck something or someone,” according to the complaint. The former village manager reportedly drove on to a fitness center in Countryside, where Deetjen was seen on video working out. Witnesses who saw the accident provided a partial plate number and description of a Crown Victoria with municipal plates, which were eventually traced to the Village of Oak Lawn. The vehicle was found with damage to the front quarter panel in front of Deetjen’s condominium building in Oak Lawn. Deetjen was brought to the Chicago Ridge police station where he was questioned and posted $250 bond while the investigation continued.
Deetjen was charged in November with multiple misdemeanor counts for leaving the scene of an accident, failure to give information or render aid resulting in injury or death to any person or damage to property, failure to give information after striking a person or property, failure to reduce speed/driving too fast for conditions, and failure to exercise due caution. Deetjen announced his retirement before the Oak Lawn Village Board was to have convened a special meeting to review evidence from the accident provided by Chicago Ridge police and determine possible disciplinary action, including termination.
Claims in the lawsuit maintain “Deetjen, aware that he had collided with something or someone, failed to stop and investigate what or whom he had hit; instead Deetjen fled the accident.” Deetjen is also said to have admitted to Chicago Ridge police that he knew he had hit something but did not stop to see who or what it was, and just kept going. Urine samples and Breathalyzer tests indicated that Deetjen was not driving under the influence.
The complaints stated that “based upon information and relief,” Deetjen was “considered to be on call and available to act as village manager at all times.” The complaint also contends that Deetjen may have been acting in his capacity as village manager when attending the employee’s father’s wake.
Also mentioned in the lawsuit is a 2013 incident, in which Deetjen drove off a forested road into a ditch on a snowy evening in his village-issued Crown Victoria near the Southwest Highway and Rt. 83 Intersection in Palos Park. Deetjen and his late wife walked to a store across the street where he called Oak Lawn public works employees to come pick up the car. Another employee picked up Deetjen and his wife, and drove them home.
According to the complaint, Oak Lawn village officials “knew about Deetjen’s prior conduct in fleeing the scene of an accident but did not discipline Deetjen for such conduct, thereby encouraging such behavior.” Deetjen was not cited or charged by Palos Park police because there was no property damage or injuries.
Acting Village Manager Randy Palmer, who is also the Oak Lawn police chief, denied the claims that the village hasn’t tried to reach out to Berkshire or his family.
“The claim by Mr. Henderson that the Village ‘never reached out’ to the pedestrian or his attorney is false,” Palmer said in an email. “In fact, while it was the Village’s understanding that neither Mr. Berkshire nor his family were cooperating with the investigation, once we identified the name of his attorney [Victor Henderson], [Oak Lawn] Village counsel contacted [Berkshire’s] attorneys to discuss this incident as well as to arrange for the inspection of the vehicle Mr. Deetjen was driving, by a representative of Mr. Berkshire. To date, this inspection has yet to be completed.”
The village’s insurance carrier will cover any punitive damages or out-of-court settlement resulting from the lawsuit after the self-insured retention of $250,000. Palmer said the 2013 incident has “nothing to do with the underlying lawsuit.”
“What is at issue is whether Mr. Deetjen acted negligently when his vehicle came into contact with Mr. Berkshire, who was crossing the road, at night, while wearing dark clothing, outside of any marked crosswalk in disregard for his own safety,” Palmer said. “Thankfully, these facts will be tried in the courtroom and not the court of public opinion.”
Deetjen’s next court hearing regarding the misdemeanor criminal charges is Jan. 22 in the Bridgeview Courthouse. He has pleaded not guilty to leaving the scene of an accident and continues to maintain being unaware that he hit a person.