In a 10-2 decision, a 12-person jury has found Caltrans partly responsible for the 2019 death of 22-year-old pedestrian Josh Howard along Highway 9.
In a verdict announced Wednesday afternoon in Santa Cruz County Superior Court after days of deliberation, they set damages at $19.25 million, ordering Jeremy Shreves, the motorist who struck Howard, to pay 51% ($9,817,500) and Caltrans to pay 49% ($9,432,500).
“The community has spoken up,” said Kelley Howard, Josh’s mother, who brought the lawsuit with Dimitri Jaumoville, the victim’s father. “It was good to hear other people who weren’t related to Josh feel the way I do.”
Howard says pursuing the lawsuit wasn’t about the money, but a way to hold Caltrans accountable for choosing not to fix a busy road with narrow shoulders, despite persistent outcry from area residents.
“This isn’t a way to run a State agency,” she said, giving credit to the local residents who raised their voices with complaints about the dangerous roadway, creating a paper trail that led to the victory. “They just fell on deaf ears, for years.”
While the verdict wasn’t unanimous, one question under the microscope had a 12-0 answer—that the road was dangerous, a point Caltrans’ lawyers had fiercely disputed throughout the trial.
One of the jurors, 81-year-old Santa Cruz resident Alice Tarail, said in voting to hold Caltrans liable, she understood that it could set a precedent.
Having led a walking group through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, she was familiar with the section of Highway 9 where Howard was killed, she explained in an interview outside the courtroom after being released.
Tarail said she originally wanted to make the State agency pay a greater percentage of a higher number of overall damages; she said she was impressed with the way the group had, in the end, been able to come up with a compromise that made sense to most.
Jurors had suggested a range of totals, from several hundred thousand to $50 million, she said.
“It was intense,” Tarail said of the process to get to the minimum of nine in-agreement to decide the case. “It took us a while.”
A week earlier, in the same courtroom, plaintiffs’ attorneys had asked jurors for $72 million in damages and to make Caltrans pay 75%, during closing arguments.
Attorney Dana Scruggs argued there needed to be a reckoning for the department’s failure to improve the section of road.
But Shelby Davitt, an attorney for Caltrans, said there’s only one person to blame for Howard’s death: Shreves.
“He shouldn’t have drifted towards that edge line,” she said. “He didn’t turn his wheel.”
She clicked to a screen with a giant blue “0” on it, indicating no pedestrian accidents had occurred there prior to Howard’s death.
Davitt also said Caltrans wasn’t provided with any specific “notice” that Highway 9 could be a serious problem in that spot.
“There’s no accident history here,” she said. “Generally complaining about the road is not notice.”
She called the proposed $72 million in damages a “ridiculous” figure “pulled out of thin air.” Instead, she said, the jury could come up with a figure by adding up several different items meant to bring the family joy in memory of Howard.
One of the options she thought of was to provide 21 of the man’s peers with passes to Roaring Camp Railroads; another was making a donation to an animal shelter, since Howard loved cats.
She suggested $1 million might be a more reasonable sum.
Davitt pointed out it took 38 minutes for a plaintiffs’ lawyer to mention the person who actually killed Howard, in his closing statement.
They wanted to go into “everything but” the man behind the wheel of the vehicle that slammed into Howard at 25 miles per hour and then kept scraping the retaining wall for 250 feet, she said.
The next day, attorney Dave Spini delivered the final argument on behalf of the plaintiffs.
He said Caltrans’s guidelines have been developed to account for “lane drift” by motorists and other factors.
“We are focused on the manuals,” he said, owning Davitt’s contention they went into the weeds on design rules to point blame away from Shreves. “We’re focused on the part of the manual that says you need an 8-foot shoulder.”
In fact, because of the retaining wall, it’s actually supposed to be 10 feet there, he continued.
Although his side has the burden of proof, Caltrans should have called a witness who could have explained more about why it was only 4-feet wide, he stated.
“Wouldn’t that be nice?” he asked the jurors, rhetorically. “Wouldn’t that have helped you?”
He criticized the State roads agency for arguing it’s imprudent to spend millions of dollars fixing a section of highway if there haven’t been pedestrian injuries.
“Yikes,” he said. “How many bodies do we need to stack up before we do something?”
And Spini compared the $2,000 a year Davitt had suggested jurors could order Caltrans to pay to cover Roaring Camp passes—which was part of a larger figure—to the $160,000 it had already racked up just for two subject matter experts who testified in the case.
“For years, the community has been pleading with them to do something,” he said. “Caltrans has done nothing. They’ve refused.”
Spini told jurors awarding $72 million in damages was the way to get Caltrans’ attention.
“They’re gonna listen here,” he said. “You’re gonna have to shout. That’s why I requested this number.”
Volkmann ordered the jurors to keep an open mind and avoid communicating about the case, including via social media, and sent them out to deliberate. Then he turned to Howard’s parents.
“I’m extremely sorry for your loss,” he said. “I have two kids of my own.”
Volkmann told the family that he was impressed with how well their lawyers represented their position. And he commended Caltrans’ representatives, too.
“Exceptional efforts,” he said. “All five of these attorneys are welcome in my court at any time.”
After the verdict arrived, Caltrans’ lawyers said it was too soon to say whether they’d appeal the decision.