Closing arguments began Wednesday in a $72 million lawsuit against the California Department of Transportation that seeks to pin the agency with the majority of the blame for the death of a pedestrian along Highway 9 in the Felton area.

Dana Scruggs, of Santa Cruz-based Scruggs, Spini and Fulton, told the 12-person jury, in Santa Cruz County Superior Court, that Caltrans’ failure to improve the section of road north of downtown led to the death of 22-year-old Josh Howard.

“They can’t claim that either Josh or his parents are at fault,” he said, referencing the verdict form and telling the jurors to consider the condition of the road: “Was it dangerous?”

The case is litigating a topic of frequent discussion amongst San Lorenzo Valley residents, many of whom choose to drive their children to school at the San Lorenzo Valley Unified School campus due to the lack of pedestrian infrastructure along the highway.

At one point Scruggs put up a Martin Luther King Jr. quote on a screen that read, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards JUSTICE.”

He asked the jury to assign 75% of the blame for Howard’s February 2019 death to Caltrans and 25% to Jeremy Shreves, the motorist who was convicted of felony reckless driving in the crash.

The first question that jurors will face as they deliberate the suit brought by the victim’s parents, Kelley Howard and Dimitri Jaumoville: “Was Highway 9 in a dangerous condition at the location of the subject accident?”

Scruggs said Caltrans knew the road was substandard and ignored the issue.

“If they’d fixed the road, it wouldn’t have happened,” Scruggs said.

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.

“This area is safe when using reasonable care,” she said. “There’s no dangerous conditions at this location.”

Davitt pointed to a 2019 study of southbound traffic that found 24,000 vehicles use the lane per day—which she suggested shows more vehicles travel the route than there are people who live in the entire state.

“Here the alleged dangerous condition was the narrow shoulder,” she said. “The shoulder does not create a substantial risk of injury.”

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,” offering that the jury could come up with a number 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.

Closing arguments were set to continue on Thursday.

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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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