Settlement reached in cyclist death

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  • Former Hawaii County police officer Jody Buddemeyer addresses the court as the widow and two sons of Jeffrey Surnow, who was killed in a 2015 crash involving Buddemeyer, await a sentence to be handed down Friday by 3rd Circuit Court Judge Melvin Fujino. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — A settlement appears to have been reached in a wrongful death case filed by the family of a cyclist fatally struck by an on-duty Hawaii Police Department officer in 2015.

The settlement was placed on the record Wednesday evening with the U.S. District Court in Honolulu in the case brought by relatives of 69-year-old Jeffrey Surnow, who died March 1, 2015, after a wreck involving former police officer Jody Buddemeyer on Waikoloa Road.

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Federal court records provided no additional details of the settlement, and attorneys for the plaintiffs and defendants either declined comment or did not respond to West Hawaii Today’s inquiries as of press time Thursday.

During the Wednesday hearing before Magistrate Judge Rom Trader in Honolulu, attorneys for all parties involved consented to the terms of the undisclosed settlement.

The settlement means that a federal jury trial set to commence Sept. 17 before Chief Judge John Michael Seabright will be taken off the calendar. That trial was expected to last 15 days.

The federal court hearing came after the County Council during its meeting Wednesday in Kailua-Kona entered executive session at the request of Corporation Counsel Joseph K. Kamelamela for an attorney-client confidential discussion to consult with the council on a settlement demand, trial strategy, and the evidence and merits of the Surnow case.

Executive session is closed to the public, thus media was not privy to details from the conversation. But a vote after the session is public record.

No discussion was held after the council emerged from executive session. South Kona Councilwoman Maile David motioned to reject the corporation counsel’s recommendation. It was seconded by Hilo Councilwoman Sue Lee Loy, and passed the entire council unanimously.

David on Thursday said she couldn’t elaborate on the matter.

Kamelamela was also unable to comment, noting only that the trial is off. More details will likely be released next month.

Thomas M. Otake of Honolulu-based law firm Davis Levin Livingston, which represents the plaintiffs, Elaine Surnow and her children Max, Sam and Lisa, said Thursday he was unable to immediately comment on the matter.

Attempts to Steven Chow, attorney for Hawaii County and the Hawaii Police Department, and Leslie Kop, counsel for Buddemeyer were also unable to be reached.

The Surnow family in 2017 filed the wrongful death suit in federal court against Buddemeyer, Hawaii County and the police department for the wrongful death of Jeffrey Surnow, a West Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, resident.

The Jan. 26, 2017, complaint and demand for jury trial contained no specific monetary amounts sought. Instead it asked the court to award special, general and punitive damages, as well as litigation costs. The case was brought in federal court because the Surnows are not Hawaii residents and the “amount in controversy exceeds $75,000, exclusive of interest and costs.”

The wrongful death suit further noted Surnow was the founder of The Surnow Company, and was a “highly successful real estate developer and well-known philanthropist in the Detroit, Michigan area. He was also “an exercise and bicycle enthusiast, and was one of the leading advocates of bicycle safety in the Detroit area.”

Police said Buddemeyer was operating a subsidized patrol car eastbound and was on-duty when his vehicle struck and killed Surnow as he rode his bicycle east up Waikoloa Road. The collision, which Buddemeyer reported at 6:25 a.m., occurred near mile marker 11.

Buddemeyer was criminally charged in 3rd Circuit Court in October 2016 in connection to the crash.

During an October 2018 trial, evidence presented showed Buddemeyer struck Surnow from behind while traveling east on Waikoloa Road in his police subsidized vehicle. The prosecution asserted throughout the trial the former officer falsely reported the crash when he called it into dispatch as a hit-and-run.

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Jurors acquitted the former officer of evidence tampering and false reporting and found him guilty of third-degree negligent homicide, a misdemeanor. In November, Buddemeyer was sentenced to one year probation with the special conditions included that he be monitored electronically for 60 days.

An appeal of Buddemeyer’s conviction filed Jan. 9 by Attorney Brian De Lima seeking relief from the judgment of conviction and probation ordered is ongoing. Briefs are currently being filed.

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