Metro

A Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge threw out the California Department of Transportation’s request for a new trial in a case where a jury decided a key thoroughfare in the Santa Cruz Mountains was so dangerous it contributed to the 2019 death of a pedestrian named Josh Howard.

On May 26, Judge Timothy Volkmann said he wasn’t going to side with Caltrans’ arguments that a jury had improperly assessed the condition of the Felton road and set damages too high, and should have been allowed to hear more about prior methamphetamine use by the driver, Jeremy Paul Shreves.

“I think the exclusion of the meth evidence was arbitrary,” said Skitch Crosby, a lawyer for Caltrans. “There’s no prejudicial effect to the plaintiff.”

Crosby said the “tunnel vision” effect Shreves described feeling, the day he collided with Howard, could indicate he was still dealing with the effects of a drug known to create a sense of intense focus. But he didn’t gain traction with the judge selecting this tack.

Caltrans was sued by Howard’s parents, Kelley Howard and Dimitri Jaumoville, for $72 million; in February, a jury settled on a $19.25 million verdict, deciding Shreves was 51% liable and Caltrans 49% responsible.

Crosby told the judge he doesn’t believe that’s reasonable.

“The $20 million verdict is egregious,” he said, lambasting it as punitive in nature. “Twenty million dollars can buy a Learjet.”

Crosby also argued the finding that the section of Highway 9 just north of the Mount Hermon intersection in Felton is dangerous was improper, given that the jury wasn’t told of any other similar accidents happening in the area.

“The finding of ‘dangerous condition’ was not supported by the evidence,” he said.

There were plenty of opportunities to present facts, the judge pointed out.

“I’ll respectfully disagree,” Volkmann said. “Evidence was submitted on behalf of both sides. The jury was properly instructed. Evidence was allowed.”

He reiterated that he thought the legal teams each did a masterful job of trying to win over the jury.

“It was an honor for this court to watch,” he said. “But I’m gonna stand on the extensive tentative decision that I’ve offered.”

Those court papers found for the plaintiffs, explained their lawyer David Spini, of Scruggs, Spini & Fulton, after the hearing.

“The State argued that there was insufficient evidence that there was a dangerous condition there,” he said, adding he wasn’t worried Volkmann might bite and order a new trial on this basis. “From our standpoint, that wasn’t even a close call.”

That’s because only nine out of the 12 person-panel would’ve had to agree to reach a decision. In this case, it was unanimous.

Conversely, the amount of damages was decided by a 10-2 vote.

“All that means to me is this was a jury that was engaged in the deliberative process,” Spini said. “Today, the State’s attempt to have that verdict set aside was denied by the court.”

Caltrans still has a cross-complaint against Shreves, although it’s unclear what it’s trying to accomplish by pursuing this strategy.

Spini says instead of focusing on legal tactics, Caltrans should get to work on improving the route many students use to get to school every day.

“All I know is we’re almost five years after this accident and not a single thing has been done to make this road safer for people walking on it,” he said, cheering the judge’s decision. “This was a very strong statement to Caltrans that something needs to be done out there.”

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Drew Penner is an award-winning Canadian journalist whose reporting has appeared in the Globe and Mail, Good Times Santa Cruz, Los Angeles Times, Scotts Valley Press Banner, San Diego Union-Tribune, KCRW and the Vancouver Sun. Please send your Los Gatos and Santa Cruz County news tips to [email protected].

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