Record $27 Million Jury Award Against City and County of San Francisco for Pedestrians in Muni Crash
SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 1 — A San Francisco Superior Court jury returned a verdict of over $27 million ($27,394,567) today for the victims of a Municipal Railway truck crash on February 11, 2003 that killed 4-year-old Elizabeth Dominguez and injured and severely traumatized her mother, the little girl’s best friend and her best friend’s grandmother.
The eight-woman, four-man jury awarded over $27 million in compensatory damages against the city of San Francisco after determining that the truck’s driver, Sebastian Garcia, was negligent and that he was 100 percent responsible for the accident. The jury heard over three weeks of testimony and deliberated for five full days.
The victim’s mother, Sylvia Lopez Dominguez, father, Humberto Dominguez, and two friends, Monica Valencia and her grandmother, Candelaria Valencia, were represented by the Los Angeles law firm of Panish, Shea & Boyle by Brian J. Panish and Kevin R. Boyle and the Law Offices of Kirk B. Bernard, also in Los Angeles.
Little Elizabeth Dominguez died of head injuries after Garcia’s truck pinned her against the wall of a pizza restaurant in San Francisco’s Mission District on Feb. 11, 2003. During trial, six eyewitnesses testified that Garcia deliberately ran a red light and attempted to accelerate through the intersection when his truck was struck by another vehicle and jumped the sidewalk where Elizabeth and her mother and friends were walking home from preschool.
After the verdict was read, plaintiff’s attorney Brian Panish noted that he requested a letter of apology from the Mayor for the families and the request was denied. “City officials still have never said they were sorry for the horror that Garcia’s negligence caused these families,” Panish said. This verdict was the second consecutive verdict in the last two months for Brian Panish that exceeded $25 million.
A superior court jury decided Thursday that the city of San Francisco should pay $27.4 million to two families because of a two-car accident that sent a municipal truck hurtling into pedestrians, killing a 4-year-old girl.
If it stands, it would be the highest personal injury verdict ever against San Francisco, according to the city attorney’s office.
Plaintiff lawyer Kevin Boyle, in court with co-counsel Kirk Bernard on Thursday, called the verdict “a monument to the loss suffered by this family.”
As the jurors trickled out, some paused outside the courtroom to hug the plaintiffs, and a couple seemed to be fighting back tears.
In the 2003 accident, Municipal Railway worker Sebastian Garcia’s city truck collided with another car, then ran onto a sidewalk and fatally pinned Elizabeth Dominguez to the wall of a pizza parlor, according to court documents.
Elizabeth was walking with her mother, Sylvia Lopez Dominguez, Candelaria Valencia, who suffered a leg injury, and Valencia’s granddaughter.
Boyle, Bernard and co-counsel Brian Panish represented Elizabeth’s parents and the two Valencias. “They hope,” Panish said later, “the city will finally accept responsibility for what occurred.”
The city attorney’s office, which had been represented in court by deputy city attorneys John Aubrey and Karen Kirby, voiced sympathy for the victims, but also said the jury went too far.
“Our hearts go out to the family of Elizabeth Dominguez, as well as the driver, whose life was forever altered by a terribly unfortunate accident,” said Matt Dorsey, spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera.
Herrera’s office has been “sympathetic to the notion of reaching some kind of just compensation,” Dorsey added. “But it’s our position that the evidence simply does not support an award of $27 million, which appears excessive in several respects.”
The city attorney “is evaluating his post-trial options,” Dorsey added.
He said that the plaintiffs at one point in the trial had suggested numbers that added up to about $100 million in compensation. Boyle countered Thursday that the plaintiffs had never named a specific number, and had just posed rhetorical questions about the value of what his clients had lost.
Thursday’s $27,394,567 verdict was made up entirely of compensatory damages, because the jury did not find city employee Sebastian Garcia’s conduct malicious, said Boyle.
Though the verdict amount doesn’t approach any of the top 10 verdicts in California last year, it was higher than almost all of the 2004 verdicts in San Francisco Superior Court, according to Verdict Search, a Recorder affiliate that tracks verdicts.
The city maintained that the verdict in Dominguez v. San Francisco, 422963, is difficult to measure against others, though. “There were four plaintiffs,” Dorsey noted. And, he added, “It was a freak accident.”
Back in July, before the civil trial started, the city appeared worried that Garcia wouldn’t testify for the defense because he was also facing a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter that hasn’t gone to trial.
The city tried unsuccessfully to delay the civil case until the criminal one was resolved by arguing that the court was forcing Garcia to choose between asserting his Fifth Amendment rights and defending against civil liability.
In the end, according to Boyle, Garcia waived his Fifth Amendment rights and testified. His criminal trial has also been pushed back, until early next year.
Boyle and Panish, from Panish, Shea & Boyle, and Bernard, from the Law Offices of Kirk B. Bernard, are based in Los Angeles.
Award is likely largest levied against city
By Justin Jouvenal, Staff Writer, San Francisco Examiner
September 1, 2005
A jury awarded four plaintiffs more than $27 million Thursday in the death of four-year-old Elizabeth Dominguez, who was killed when a Muni maintenance truck spun out of control in 2003 and crushed her against the wall of a pizzeria as she walked home from pre-school with family and friends.
The jury found that the driver, 58-year-old Muni maintenance worker Sebastian Garcia, was negligent when he ran a red light at 24th Street and Potrero Avenue, smashed into a car, jumped a curb and then plowed into a group that included Dominguez on Feb. 11, 2003.
The jury awarded more than $20 million to Dominguez’s parents, Sylvia Lopez and Humberto Dominguez, as well as more than $3 million apiece to Dominguez family friends Candelaria Valencia and Monica Valencia, a grandmother and granddaughter who were also injured in the crash.
If the ruling stands, it would likely be the largest single personal injury judgment against the City of San Francisco, according to City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office.
Through a translator, Humberto Dominguez said he was grateful the three-and-a-half week trial had finally drawn to a close. It took the jury five days to reach a verdict.
“I want to thank God that justice has been done,” Dominguez said, gazing up at the sky. “My daughter is happy at what occurred here today.”
The suit was filed against Garcia and The City in July 2003 in San Francisco Superior Court. Garcia was on duty with Muni at the time of the crash, so The City was liable in the case.
Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for the City Attorney’s Office, said The City felt for the family but that the award was too large.
“We all know this is a horrific human tragedy. Our hearts go out to the family and the driver,” Dorsey said. “We believe the award is excessive in a number of ways. The City Attorney is evaluating his options.”
Dorsey said Herrera would likely make a decision in the next few weeks whether to appeal the judgment. When asked why The City didn’t settle the suit, Dorsey said the attorney representing the plaintiffs, Brian Panish, had floated a settlement of around $100 million during the trial. Panish said he tried to settle the suit with The City, but he said City officials were not interested.
Garcia, who is still employed by Muni, will face criminal charges later this year. The accident prompted The City to paint new stripes at the 24th Street and Potrero Avenue crosswalk and post a crossing guard at the location.
4-year-old was struck by Muni truck in 2003
Charlie Goodyear, Chronicle Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 2005
A San Francisco jury awarded $27 million Thursday to the family of 4- year-old girl killed in 2003 when she was struck by a Muni truck.
After 3 1/2 weeks of trial, jurors deliberated almost five days before deciding for the family of Elizabeth Dominguez.
“I just want to thank God that justice has been done,” said her father, Humberto Dominguez, at a press conference in front of City Hall. “My daughter, who is in heaven, is happy.”
The jury found that the driver, Sebastian Garcia, had been negligent when he drove into the intersection of Potrero Avenue and 24th Street on Feb. 11, 2003. Elizabeth was walking on the sidewalk with her mother when Garcia’s truck hit her, pinning her against a restaurant. The girl died at the scene.
Authorities investigated whether Garcia had run a red light, but the San Francisco district attorney wound up charging him with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, rather than a more serious felony. The girl’s family said Garcia deserved more severe prosecution, but a spokesperson for then-District Attorney Terence Hallinan said at the time that conflicting witness accounts dictated what charges could be filed.
Garcia, who is still employed at Muni, is scheduled to stand trial in January.
“We would like to thank the jury,” said Brian Panish, the attorney who represented the Dominguez family in the civil lawsuit against the city that was decided Thursday. “It’s been a long fight for this family, and they just want to move on with their lives.”
If the verdict stands, it would be the largest personal injury award ever made by a jury against the city and county of San Francisco, according to Matt Dorsey, spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera.
“We asked first for a written apology from the mayor,” said Panish, when asked about attempts to settle the matter, which began with a claim filed against the city for $25 million. “We tried to settle the case, and they refused to do that.”
Dorsey said a settlement hadn’t been reached before trial because “the plaintiff’s attorneys weren’t willing to engage in reasonable settlement negotiations” and because, given “the number of facts in dispute in the case, there’s no way to say that any outcome was preordained.”
In their lawsuit, the Dominguez family argued the city should have improved safety at the busy intersection before the accident occurred.
“We continue to believe that the evidence does not support an award of $27 million,” Dorsey said, adding that city attorneys were reviewing all post- trial options, including an appeal to a higher court.
“We all acknowledge this was a horrific human tragedy, and our hearts go out to the family of Elizabeth Dominguez as well as to the driver whose life has been forever altered by this terrible accident,” he said.
Muni spokeswoman Maggie Lynch declined to comment.
Disclaimer: The cases and results set forth herein are a sampling of results achieved. This is a partial list and does not constitute a promise, guarantee or warranty of any kind. Results differ from case to case depending on the facts.
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