Lawsuit: Dangers of Highway 99 through Bakersfield should be addressed for safety

January 13, 2021 | 5:00 am


In November 2019, a big rig driver slammed into the back of a pickup truck on Highway 99 at Rosedale Highway, killing both the pickup’s driver and passenger, Kathy McNutt and Luther Harold Goldman. A year later, at nearly the same location, a 10-year-old boy died when a big rig crashed into the back of the car he was riding in.

The stretch of Highway 99 through Bakersfield has seen in its share of crashes in recent years, particularly in central Bakersfield, which is currently is under construction. Officials should take extra steps to make sure it’s safer for drivers.

That’s the message from Jimmy McNutt, son of Kathy McNutt, who died in the November 2019 crash. Chain | Cohn | Stiles is representing the McNutt family in their wrongful death lawsuit against the big rig driver, his company, and Caltrans, and helping raise awareness of the dangerous roadway.

California Highway Patrol reported in that November 2019 crash that there was no evidence of tire friction marks from the semi, showing the driver did not attempt to brake, and leading them to believe negligence could have played a role. The driver of the pickup, Luther Harold Goleman, was Kathy McNutt’s boyfriend. Kathy McNutt was a loving grandmother, mother, daughter, and sister, Jimmy McNutt said.

“There is a big increase in accidents there, for sure,” Jimmy McNutt told KGET-17 News. McNutt works as a tow truck driver, and regularly assists and responds to accidents locally. “We respond to quite a few. It seems like if not every day, every other day.”

Chain | Cohn | Stiles attorney Matt Clark suggested Caltrans could increase the number of warning signage to make sure drivers are aware they are in a construction zone, or install “rumble strips” in the area to alert inattentive drivers of potential dangers, which cause a vibration and audible rumbling.

In the case of the fatal crash involving the 10-year-old in November 2020, CHP reported that traffic had come to a complete stop on the southbound lanes of Highway 99 just north of Rosedale Highway. A driver of a semi-truck was unable to stop in time and crashed into the rear of the vehicle, pushing the car into the rear of another trailer.

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Department of Justice settles with Kern County Sheriff’s Office over civil rights violations, Chain | Cohn | Stiles cases

December 30, 2020 | 5:00 am


A settlement has been reached between the California Department of Justice and local law enforcement departments after an investigation into civil rights violations and excessive force allegations, some of which stem from Chain | Cohn | Stiles cases.

The settlement agreement requires the Kern County Sheriff’s Office to enact an extensive list of reforms over the next five years aimed at ensuring the department protects citizens’ constitutional rights and treats individuals with respect and dignity, according to The Bakersfield Californian reports. To see the list, please scroll to the bottom.

The four-year investigation determined KCSO had engaged in a pattern of constitutional violations involving improper use of force, unreasonable searches and seizures and inadequate management. The Department of Justice also alleged the Sheriff’s Department violated state law in its use of deadly force and its handling of civilian complaints. The settlement requires more than a dozen changes to the Sheriff’s Office over the next five years, with an independent monitor to ensure those changes take place.

While the investigation shined yet another light on the ongoing civil rights violations by local law enforcement, it’s hard to imagine the settlement will lead to real change, Chain | Cohn | Stiles managing partner David Cohn told media. The law firm has filed numerous wrongful death, excessive force, and civil rights lawsuits against local law enforcement department resulting in tens of millions of dollars in damages for clients.

“I don’t think it means anything,” Cohn told The Bakersfield Californian. “I don’t think it’s going to have any meaningful impact with respect to how the Kern County Sheriff’s Department handles excessive force issues within the department … Do you see any of the political leaders, do you see any of the supervisors saying to the sheriff, ‘we want meaningful reform, we are tired of paying out on these claims? It’s business as usual. Nothing is going to change.”

The local office of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation also commented as follows: “This is not going to be an overnight, ‘we’ve entered into this consent decree and now all of a sudden things are going to be better in the next year or two.’ There is going to be this long road ahead to ensure we are going to see the change we want to see.”

 

INVESTIGATIONS

More than five years The Guardian — a renowned British national daily newspaper that also covers issues in the United States — unveiled its five-part series that examined the use of deadly force, rough justice, sexual misconduct cases and other issues involving “America’s deadliest police” of Kern County. Among the cases highlighted were many of those involving wrongful deathpolice misconduct, sexual misconduct and civil rights cases over the years prior handled by the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Stiles.

“Police in Kern County, California, have killed more people per capita than in any other American county in 2015,” according to The Guardian’s report. “The Guardian examines how, with little oversight, officers here became the country’s most lethal.”

The Guardian’s series was part of a project called The Counted, highlighting the number of people killed by police and other law enforcement agencies in the United States throughout 2015, “to monitor their demographics and to tell the stories of how they died.” Why was this necessary? According to The Guardian, the U.S. government had no comprehensive record of the number of people killed by law enforcement at the time, and still doesn’t. And this lack of basic data has been glaring amid the protests, riots and worldwide debate set in motion by fatal police shootings.

Why focus on Kern County? The series tackled the issue of how police officers in Kern County are reportedly responsible for killing more local residents per capita than in any other county in the country — about 1.5 people per 100,000 residents.

Among the cases highlighted by the publication included:

  • David Sal Silva, who was killed on the night of May 7, 2013. Silva was asleep in front of a home in east Bakersfield, across from Kern Medical Center when several law enforcement officers arrived on scene and proceeded to use unreasonable and excessive force in striking Silva with batons several times all over his body, while he screamed for his life and repeatedly begged the officers to stop. After being repeatedly beaten, bitten and hog-tied, Silva stopped breathing. Shortly after midnight, Silva was taken to Kern Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Chain | Cohn | Stiles filed a civil rights lawsuit in connection with the wrongful death of David Silva. On May 4, 2016, a settlement was reached for $3.4 million.
  • David Garcia, who was shot to death in January 2015 by Kern County Sheriff’s deputies while leaving his house unarmed. Deputies were called to the house to assist on a suicide attempt call. A settlement was reached in 2018.
  • James Moore was beaten to death by several deputies from the Kern County Sheriff’s Department while housed in central receiving downtown Bakersfield jail. On behalf of his family, Chain | Cohn | Stiles filed suit. Three deputies were prosecuted by the Kern County District Attorney’s Office for their roles in James’ death. The case settled for $6 million.
  • The series also highlighted three deputy-involved fatal crashes. In all three, Chain | Cohn | Stiles has filed claims and lawsuits on behalf of their families. Ultimately, the lawsuits led to reformed driving practices on the part of KCSO deputies. Those cases include:
    • Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley, who were killed in December 2011, when Kern County sheriff’s deputy John Swearengin struck and killed them as they pushed a motorcycle across Norris Road. Swearengin was traveling at more than 80 mph in a 45-mph zone, without activating his emergency lights or siren. The case settled in March for $8.8 million.
    • Nancy Garrett, who was killed in September 2014 in Oildale when a Kern County Sheriff’s Office patrol car operated by Deputy Nicholas Clerico struck and killed her. The California Highway Patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) found Deputy Clerico at fault in the crash, and the CHP report recommended that a vehicular manslaughter charge be filed against the deputy.
    • Larry Maharrey, who was killed when Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy Marvin Gomez abruptly made a left turn against a red light onto Airport Drive in Oildale directly into Maharrey’s motorcycle. Maharrey was unable to avoid the collision with Deputy Gomez’s patrol vehicle, and died as a result of the crash. The family, represented by Chain | Cohn | Stiles, and County of Kern settled the lawsuit for $3.8 million.

Then in 2016, the California Attorney General’s Office and the FBI launched investigations into Kern County Sheriff’s Office and the Bakersfield Police Department.

But this wasn’t the first time a Bakersfield police department had been investigated for an alleged pattern of excessive force. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice launched what would become a four-and-a-half year investigation after receiving numerous complaints of deadly and non-deadly excessive force and discriminatory policing methods. In April 2004, that department suggested policy changes in a 19-page letter to the department and Bakersfield Police Department began making those changes including some in its use-of-force and officer-involved shootings policies. In 2008, the federal department reviewed those changes and announced the BPD hadn’t stepped over any constitutional lines.

Still, claims and lawsuits against local law enforcement alleging misconduct, civil rights violations, and police brutality persist.

 

REFORMS

A list of reforms required under a settlement agreement between the California Department of Justice and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office are as follows:

  • Revise use of force policies to prohibit maneuvers that have a substantial risk of causing suffocation and require deputies to intervene when excessive use of force is taking place.
  • Modify canine policies and training from “find and bite” to “find and bark” and limit off-leash canine deployment only for armed suspects or those wanted for a serious felony.
  • Inform public about all officer-involved shootings and deaths in custody.
  • Require supervisors to investigate all uses of force.
  • Improve use of force training to include de-escalation techniques and bias.
  • Meet with community advisory panel to receive input.
  • Require deputies to state reason for an investigatory stop or detention as soon as possible.
  • Require deputies to state a valid reason under the law for a consent search and secure a supervisor’s approval for any search of a home.
  • Provide dispatchers with crisis intervention training and establish deputies who are preferred responders to individuals in a mental health crisis.
  • Ensure timely access to police services to all individuals regardless of ability to speak English.
  • Develop a recruitment plan for attracting workforce that reflects diversity in Kern County.
  • Broaden efforts to participate in community engagement efforts.
  • Conduct a biennial community survey measuring public satisfaction with policing.
  • Establish a clear definition for a civilian complaint.

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If you or someone you know is injured by law enforcement, injured in an accident at the fault of someone else, or injured on the job no matter whose fault it is, contact the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Stiles by calling (661) 323-4000, or fill out a free consultation form at chainlaw.com.

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MEDIA COVERAGE

THE GUARDIAN SERIES

Kern County juvenile hall sex abuse cases resolve after appeals court win

December 2, 2020 | 5:00 am


Chain | Cohn | Stiles has resolved several lawsuits on behalf of victims of sexual assault by a Kern County Juvenile Corrections officer while they were housed at James G. Bowels Juvenile Hall.

Settlements of $200,000, $250,000, and $400,000 were reached with the County of Kern on behalf off the victims, respectively. The final settlement was reached recently after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the victim, a Chain | Cohn | Stiles plaintiff, who had alleged that in 2015 corrections officer George Anderson made sexual comments to her, groomed her for sexual abuse, propositioned her for sex and watched her shower. The appeals court found that the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California erred in its 2016 decision and reversed it.

“These young ladies had a right to privacy, as we all do. The fact that we had three victims who alleged sexual misconduct by a corrections officer pointed to a systemic problem in the facility. Simply, this was an abuse of power and authority,” said David Cohn, managing partner and attorney at Chain | Cohn | Stiles. “We’re glad these women received justice, and will be able to move forward with their lives.”

One victim alleged that corrections officer George Anderson sexually abused her and watched her shower. He allegedly made sexual comments, groomed victims for sexual abuse, and propositioned for sex. Specifically, one victim alleged Anderson made comments about her butt, told her about a sexually explicit dream he had about her, touched her face and shoulders and watched from a staff desk as she showered on several occasions. The department had received previous complaints about Anderson watching girls shower, it’s alleged.

In addition to seeking damages, the victims alleged they were failed by the deficient oversight, training, and practices at Kern’s juvenile hall, which provided the perpetrator with opportunities that he was able to exploit.

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PAST MEDIA COVERAGE

How dangerous is drowsy driving? As risky as operating a vehicle while under the influence

November 4, 2020 | 10:18 am


How dangerous is drowsy driving?

Driving on less than 5 hours of sleep is similar to driving over the legal limit for alcohol. In fact, you are 3 times more likely to be in a vehicle crash if you are fatigued, which is why drowsy driving is responsible for some 300,000 crashes every year in the United States, and up to 6,400 deaths per year, according to National Sleep Foundation.

Chain | Cohn | Stiles — for Drowsy Driving Prevention Week — is raising awareness of the dangers of driving while drowsy, and educating drivers on sleep safety in an effort to reduce the number of fatigue-related crashes and to ultimately save lives.

And with the end of Daylight Saving Time, the time change can disrupt sleep patterns causing people to feel drowsy.

“Driving while you are tired or drowsy is risky and can have the same dangerous consequences. These are facts: it impairs driving performance and reaction time,” said Chain | Cohn | Stiles attorney and senior partner Matthew Clark. “Please make sleep a priority, and only drive when alert. Think of your safety and your passengers, but also of the safety of others on the road.”

Some groups have been identified as most vulnerable to drowsy driving including commercial drivers, particularly tractor trailer, tour bus and public transit drivers; people who work long hours or late-night shifts; people with sleep disorders; new parents or caregivers of infants and young children; young and newer drivers; and college and high school students. For example, drowsy driving contributed to 91,000 police-reported crashes and nearly 800 deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Busy interstates accounted for the most sleep-related driving deaths compared to other roadways. Utility vehicles were involved in the highest percentage of fatal sleepy-driver accidents with pickup trucks and vans next on the list. Dawn light and foggy skies contributed the most to fatal sleep-related accidents, according to AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

A study by SleepJunkie, a website focused on improving sleeping habits, found that drowsy driving-related roadway fatalities spike in the early morning hours, with 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., marking the deadliest span. The hours just before and after — 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. and 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. — were the second and third most fatal times.

Before you drive, consider if you are:

  • Sleep-deprived or fatigued. Six hours of sleep or less triples your risk.
  • Suffering from sleep loss (insomnia) or poor quality sleep.
  • Driving long distances without proper rest breaks.
  • Driving through the night, mid-afternoon or when you would normally be asleep.
  • Taking sedating medications such as antidepressants, cold tablets or antihistamines.
  • Working more than 60 hours a week. This increases your risk of crashing by 40 percent.
  • Working more than one job and your main job involves shift work.
  • Drinking even small amounts of alcohol.
  • Driving alone or on a long, rural, dark or boring road.

The warning signs of drowsy driving include repeated yawning, struggling to keep one’s eyes open and focused, forgetting the last few miles driven, tailgating or missing traffic signals, and swerving or drifting between lanes of traffic.

Here is what you can do to prevent drowsy driving:

  • Get enough sleep before you drive. It’s recommended adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per day.
  • If you’re planning a long road trip, make sure you plan properly for rest stops — a break every 100 miles or every two hours on the road is suggested.
  • Use the buddy system to keep you awake and share driving duties.
  • Also, try to travel during times you are normally awake.
  • If you have been up for 24 hours or more, do not drive. Period.
  • Drink caffeine if you feel sleepy, and see how you feel first before getting behind the wheel.
  • Avoid alcohol and medication that may cause drowsiness or have side effects.
  • If you feel too sleepy, find someplace safe to take a nap or sleep, or stay the night somewhere. After, you’ll feel energized and ready to drive!

Chain | Cohn | Stiles resolved a wrongful death lawsuit in which a driver fell asleep at wheel after working a 12-hour shift, jumped a curb and struck a jogger as he ran on the sidewalk. The jogger was also a husband and father of a little girl. That case settled for $6 million.

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McFarland basketball coach sentenced in sexual misconduct case; Chain | Cohn | Stiles civil case for victim is ongoing

October 28, 2020 | 5:00 am


A former McFarland High basketball coach has been sentenced to state prison after he promised a 15-year-old boy a spot on the varsity team in exchange for sexual favors.

Chain | Cohn | Stiles is representing the victim in his sexual misconduct civil case.

Fernando Pruneda was sentenced to two years in prison for the charge of contacting a minor to commit a sexual offense after pleading no contest. He must also register as a sex offender.

An investigation into the high school coach was launched after a McFarland High School sophomore reported inappropriate sexual contact with the coach. According to court documents, Pruneda repeatedly contacted the boy via text message.

Pruneda offered to take him to a basketball tournament in Nevada. Pruneda told the boy not to say anything to anyone, and to inform his parents that the whole team is going. He also informed the boy that they would have to share a bed. He would also tell the boy to erase the messages between the two. According to court documents, Pruneda began to offer the boy massages after practice. Pruneda called the boy out of class to give him a massage.

Kern County Sheriff’s Office detectives became involved after meeting with the victim and his mother, and texted Pruneda in place of the victim to arrange a meeting. They arrested him at the meeting location.

The civil case is ongoing.

 

SEXUAL MISCONDUCT LAWSUITS

Chain | Cohn | Stiles has been involved in several lawsuits in recent years in representing victims of sexual abuse and sex assault:

  • Chain | Cohn | Stiles filed a lawsuit against the Wasco Union High School District on behalf of a student who was the victim of sexual misconduct by an assistant football coach at the high school. Miguel Nicholas Saldana pleaded no contest to sending sexually explicit messages to the student, was sentenced to six months in jail, must perform 720 hours of community service and register as a sex offender.
  • Our attorneys filed lawsuits in federal court against the County of Kern and a juvenile corrections officer on behalf of a young woman who was sexually abused at juvenile hall. The lawsuit was settled recently for $250,000.
  • Our lawyers also filed claims on behalf of several students who were victims of sexual misconduct at North High School. Kern County Sheriff’s Office has arrested Edwin Rodriguez on suspicion of lewd and lascivious acts with minors 14 to 15 years old, exhibiting harmful matter to a minor, annoying a child under 18 and false imprisonment.
  • Chain | Cohn | Stiles represented Karen Frye, who was sexually molested at Lerdo Jail by a Kern County Sheriff’s Department detentions deputy. The law firm filed suit against the county for civil rights violations, conspiracy, sexual assault and battery, negligence, fraud, breach of contract and excessive use of force. The department also attempted to “buy off” Frye by offering her $1,500 in exchange for her agreement to not sue the department. That case settled for $300,000.
  • We represented a woman who was sexually assaulted by Kern County deputy Gabriel Lopez in her home in Tehachapi. Lopez sexually assaulted at least two other people as well. He pleaded no contest to two counts of assault by a public officer, two counts of false imprisonment, and two counts of sexual battery, and was sentenced to two years in prison. Chain | Cohn | Stiles attorneys also represented a 79-year-old woman who called the sheriff’s office during a dispute with her husband, who was diagnosed with late-stage Alzheimer’s. She, too, was sexually assaulted by Lopez in a similar fashion to his other victims. The third victim was quietly paid $5,000 by the department, and was unable to bring a civil claim. In addition, the partners at Chain | Cohn | Stiles penned a “Community Voices” article, calling on the County of Kern to cease practices that call for confidential settlements in lawsuits pertaining to victims of sexual assault, as well as paying “hush money” to those victims.

A new law in California allows victims of childhood sexual assault more time to file lawsuits, and seek justice. Assembly Bill 218 gives victims of childhood sexual abuse either until age 40 or five years from discovery of the abuse to file civil lawsuits. The previous limit had been 26, or within three years from discovery of the abuse. It also allows victims of all ages three years to bring claims that would have otherwise been barred due to existing statutes.

Here’s what you can do if you’ve been sexually assaulted or abused:

  • Call for help: Always call the police, a rape hotline or both following any form of sexual assault or abuse. This can be difficult to do, but the sooner you get in touch with someone, the sooner justice can be served.
  • See a doctor: Seek immediate medical care following a rape or sexual abuse scenario. Hospitals often have specialists trained to help in these types of situations and they often have someone on staff that can help with the stress.
  • Contact an attorney: After you have taken all the aforementioned steps, contact a legal professional, who has understanding of sexual abuse law.

If you or someone you know experienced sexual assault and is seeking resources, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673). If you are in immediate danger, call 911.

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MEDIA COVERAGE

Chain | Cohn | Stiles files lawsuit in the case of Wasco High coach convicted of sexual misconduct with student

August 26, 2020 | 10:30 am


Chain | Cohn | Stiles has filed a lawsuit against the Wasco Union High School District on behalf of a student who was the victim of sexual misconduct by an assistant football coach at the high school.

Miguel Nicholas Saldana pleaded no contest to sending sexually explicit messages to the student, was sentenced to six months in jail, must perform 720 hours of community service and register as a sex offender, according to news reports.

Saldana, who was 23 years old at the time of the offenses, was an assistant football coach at Wasco High School as well as a Kern County detentions deputy. According to Kern County Sheriff’s Office reports, Saldana sent sexually explicit messages and asked for sexual favors from the student, who was 16 years old at the time, through Snapchat. The student then reported the messages to her mother, and then to school administrators.

Chain | Cohn | Stiles filed a lawsuit against the Wasco Union High School District alleging failure to properly supervise the volunteer coach. In fact, Saldana sent messages while he was at football practice and sent sexually explicit pictures of himself while wearing Wasco High attire.

In a reprehensible component in the case, the law firm hired to defend the school district in the case — Robinson & Kellar — threatened in a letter to countersue the victim for as much as $70,000, stating the district was not responsible for the actions of the volunteer coach

“How would you interpret it?” Chain | Cohn | Stiles attorney Matt Clark told KGET News. “I mean, it’s a threat, right? There’s a ‘Back off, dismiss your lawsuit or, should you ultimately lose, we’re going to pound you to the tune of $70,000.’”

Clark argues that illegal actions took place on school property, and the school could or should reasonably have known about the behavior. The civil case is ongoing.

Chain | Cohn | Stiles is representing the victims of several other student victims of sexual misconduct while at school. The law firm filed claims on behalf of three students who were victims of sexual misconduct by a North High School equipment manager.

Edwin Rodriguez faces 13 counts of lewd or lascivious acts with a child 14 or 15 years old. Investigation reports state that Rodriguez sent sexually explicit messages to at least eight students through social media, and had sexual contact with several of them. He is in custody on $335,000 bail on the two cases. A trial has been scheduled for Sept. 18.

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If you or someone you know is injured in an accident at the fault of someone else, injured on the job no matter whose fault it is, or know someone who has been sexually abuse or assaulted at the hands of someone in authority, contact the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Stiles by calling (661) 323-4000, or fill out a free consultation form at chainlaw.com.

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MEDIA COVERAGE

Reward offered for information leading to the arrest in July 22 fatal hit-and-run crash

August 5, 2020 | 6:00 am


A reward is being offered for information that leads to the arrest of the suspect responsible for the July 22 hit-and-run crash near CSU Bakersfield that killed 65-year-old Deborah Ann Geneau.

Chain | Cohn | Stiles and family of Deborah Ann Geneau is offering a $2,500 reward to the person who helps identify the driver of a 2013-2019 dark gray Nissan Sentra that is suspected to causing the crash on Stockdale Highway near Don Hart Drive. That vehicle turned into bike path parking area across from CSUB immediately after the collision, police said. It has driver’s side damage.

Anyone with information is urged to call 326-3967 or the Kern Secret Witness line at (661) 322-4040.

“I spent yesterday at the mortuary collecting my mother’s belongings, including her crushed earrings and wedding ring. I couldn’t help but think about what the driver of the other vehicle might have been doing yesterday?” said Dawn Elliott, Deborah Ann Geneau’s daughter and only child, in a statement to media. “We really just want this person to come forward, or assistance to find the person responsible.”

Bakersfield Police Department released a new video of surveillance camera angles. The angles include traffic cameras and footage from a Golden Empire Transportation bus that was in the vicinity of the crash, police said. You can view the videos by clicking here.

“At this point, all indications are that this was an accident,” said Ray Pruitt, investigator with Chain | Cohn | Stiles, in a news conference. “But a person made a decision after being involved in a fatal accident to flee the scene. Now that person has to be held accountable.”

At the news conference for media at Chain | Cohn | Stiles, husband Rick Geneau, husband of Debbie, and their daughter Dawn, shared about their loss, and pleaded with the driver who caused the collision to turn him or herself in.

Rick met Debbie met when they were both 14 years old. At the time of Debbie’s death, they had had been married for 45 years.

“You see these lines on my face, they’re not from old age. They’re timelines that I’ve spent with my wife,” Rick Geneau told media. We all miss her deeply … I thought I was the strength of the family. Come to find out she was my strength.”

Our community — friends and strangers — have reached out to the family since the accident. The family is grateful for the outpouring of love, condolences, and support, Rick Geneau said. A GoFundMe page has been set up to pay for funeral expenses. Click here to access that page.

Rick Geneau, in speaking through media, said if the driver turned themselves in, he would stand beside them in court and ask for leniency.

“But if you don’t turn yourself in, I’ll be in court also and I’ll be seeking full prosecution to the max,” he said.

Dawn Elliott told media she feels she’s had to take on her mother’s role and be the strength of the family during this time.

“You’ve not only taken my mom’s life, you’ve taken a piece of all of our lives.”

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CRASH MEDIA COVERAGE

 

REWARD MEDIA COVERAGE

Chain | Cohn | Stiles resolves Nancy Garrett wrongful death case, the last in a series of fatal crashes involving Kern County Sheriff’s personnel

July 8, 2020 | 6:00 am


Chain | Cohn | Stiles has resolved a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the family of 72-year-old Nancy Joyce Garrett, who was killed when a Kern County Sheriff’s Office deputy struck and killed her in September 2014 while in his patrol car.

The family settled the lawsuit against the County of Kern for $2.5 million. The resolution of this case represents the culmination of nearly a decade of work representing not only the family of Nancy Garrett, but the families of Daniel Hiler, Larry Maharrey and others who have been killed in crashes involving Kern County Sheriff’s Office personnel

“This case resulted in five years of protracted litigation in federal court,” Chain | Cohn | Stiles attorney Matt Clark told The Bakersfield Californian. “We are pleased with the outcome especially in light of the fact that the civil rights components of the case were fought at every turn … This case is an example of how the wheels of justice do in fact grind slowly. We appreciate that we had patient clients who believed in the civil rights aspects of the case to see if through to the end.”

For full media coverage of the case, see the listing below.

 

THE CRASH

The crash occurred on Sept. 28, 2014, at the intersection of North Chester Avenue and China Grade Loop in Oildale. The California Highway Patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) report found that Deputy Nicholas Clerico was at fault when he ran a red light at 85 mph and crashed into Garrett’s vehicle, on her driver’s side. She died from multiple blunt force trauma injuries.

“A reasonable person would have known that entering an intersection against a red traffic signal, at 85 mph, and without giving adequate warning to approaching traffic would create a danger to human life,” the CHP report stated.

The CHP report recommended that a vehicular manslaughter charge be filed against the deputy, and in 2017, he pleaded no contest to the charge and was sentenced to 240 hours of community service. He was no longer with the KCSO by the time he accepted the plea agreement.

Nancy was a friendly neighbor, a caregiver for our community, an active blogger, and the pillar of her family. She was a drug and alcohol counselor for the Kern County Mental Health Department, and also volunteered her time as a substance abuse counselor for STEPS, a local nonprofit that provides DUI awareness services. At the time of the crash, she was returning home from a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game she attended with her family and friends.

The lawsuit, filed in 2015 on behalf of Garrett’s adult children, Mark McGowan and Deborah Blanco, asked for monetary damages as well as changes within the sheriff’s department in how deputies were trained.

 

KCSO DRIVING

In the lawsuit, Garrett’s family through Chain | Cohn | Stiles asked for changes within the sheriff’s department in how deputies are trained properly throughout Bakersfield and other communities across Kern County. The county’s policies “were not adequate to train its deputies to handle the usual and recurring situations with which they must deal, including … driving at excessive speeds, pre-clearing intersections and responding Code 3. (Kern County) was deliberately indifferent to the obvious consequences of its failure to train its deputies adequately.”

In fact, Garrett’s death came in the midst of other tragic crashes involving a KCSO. In a four-year span, Kern County sheriff’s personnel crashed into and killed four innocent bystanders in Oildale, including Garrett.

  • Larry Maharrey was killed in July 2015 when Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy Marvin Gomez abruptly made a left turn against a red light onto Airport Drive in Oildale directly into Maharrey’s motorcycle. Maharrey was unable to avoid the collision with Deputy Gomez’s patrol vehicle, and died as a result of the crash. The family, represented by Chain | Cohn | Stiles, and County of Kern settled the lawsuit for $3.8 million.
  • Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley were killed in December 2011, when Kern County sheriff’s deputy John Swearengin struck and killed them as they pushed a motorcycle across Norris Road. Swearengin was traveling at more than 80 mph in a 45-mph zone, without activating his emergency lights or siren. The case settled in March for $8.8 million.

 

BRINGING ABOUT CHANGE

The case was delayed due, in part, to the Central Valley’s federal district court instituting a “judicial emergency” order due to a shortage of judges. Federal Judge Dale A. Drozd of the U.S. Eastern District Court of California, the federal judicial district that includes Bakersfield and the southern Central Valley area, stated that the judicial emergency order “will seriously hinder the administration of justice” in the district.

In the end, Chain | Cohn | Stiles was able to resolve the case for the family, and helped bring about change.

“Over all else, the family of Nancy Garrett from the outset sought change in the driving practices within the Kern County Sheriff’s Office,” Clark told The Bakersfield Californian.

The family believes their lawsuit ultimately had a positive impact in the community, evidenced by the fact that in the five years of litigation they aren’t aware of any deadly traffic collisions involving sheriff’s deputies responding to calls, Clark said.

McGowan and Blanco told The Bakersfield Californian they continue to stand behind law officers and deputies as they work together with the community to maximize vehicle safety.

“Despite this litigation,” they said in the statement, “we support law enforcement and hope it prevents future crashes and tragedies on the part of our officers and our community members.”

Following the closure of the case, Mark McGowan posted a video regarding his experience with the case, and with Chain | Cohn | Stiles. You can view that video by clicking here.

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Fireworks Safety: Don’t let home celebrations this Fourth of July turn to tragedy (or a fine)

July 1, 2020 | 6:00 am


As COVID-19 continues to spread locally and statewide regulations block public gatherings, officials are putting a halt to large fireworks shows this Fourth of July, leading many to celebrate at home.

And while lighting fireworks in your own yard might seem festive and fun, it’s important to celebrate our nation’s Independence safely, so your holiday doesn’t turn into tragedy.

In fact, about 11,000 people are treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms for fireworks-related injuries each year. And in the month surrounding July 4, our nation sees about 200 fireworks injuries per day, according to the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Serious burns, eye injuries, and even death can occur. Injuries to people aside, fireworks start nearly 20,000 fires each year, including 1,300 structure fires and 300 vehicle fires.

“The fact is anyone close to fireworks is in danger. Fireworks can be unpredictable, and injuries can happen to anyone,” said David Cohn, managing partner at personal injury attorney at Chain | Cohn | Stiles. “Please understand the dangers, and celebrate safely.”

Chain | Cohn | Stiles offers the following safety tips to make sure your Fourth of July is as fun and safe as possible. For local celebration and safety information, please see below.

  • Never give fireworks to small children, or allow them to ignite fireworks.
  • Always have an adult supervise fireworks activities.
  • Never place any part of your body directly over a fireworks device when lighting the fuse. Back up to a safe distance immediately after lighting fireworks.
  • Only use fireworks outdoors in a clear area, and away from buildings and vehicles.
  • Never try to re-light or pick up fireworks that have not ignited fully.
  • Never point or throw fireworks at another person.
  • Keep a bucket of water or a garden hose handy in case of fire or other mishap.
  • Light fireworks one at a time, then move back quickly.
  • Never carry fireworks in a pocket or shoot them off in metal or glass containers.
  • After fireworks complete their burning, douse the spent device with plenty of water from a bucket or hose before discarding it to prevent a trash fire.
  • Never use fireworks while impaired by drugs or alcohol.
  • Never light them indoors.
  • Never use illegal fireworks.

If someone is injured by fireworks, here’s what you can do:

  • If an eye injury happens, don’t let the injured person touch or rub it, as this may cause even more damage. Don’t flush the eye out with water or try to put any ointment on it. Cut out the bottom of a paper cup, place it around the eye, and get medical care right away — eyesight may depend on it.
  • If someone suffers a burn, remove clothing from the burned area, and call your doctor immediately.
  • If someone is injured due to the negligence of someone else, please contact Chain | Cohn | Stiles immediately to receive legal assistance, be compensated for injuries suffered, and continue to get medical care in the future.

Chain | Cohn | Stiles in recent years has represented victims of fireworks accidents and other burn injury cases. In 2014 attorney David Cohn represented two men who suffered from severe injuries caused in a fireworks accident while attending a party on Fourth of July in west Bakersfield. The two men arrived at the party where party-goers were allegedly setting off illegal fireworks and explosives. A blast injured two people, and the case settled in 2018 for $2.3 million.

 

KERN COUNTY CELEBRATIONS

The city of Bakersfield canceled this year’s Fourth of July fireworks celebration at The Park at River Walk due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The city will broadcast a special Independence Day concert by the Bakersfield Municipal Band on multiple social media platforms. Other Kern County cities — including Shafter, Delano, Tehachapi, and McFarland — have also canceled its shows. Taft and Buttonwillow are continuing its shows with drive-in viewings.

Additionally, American Pyrotechnics Association announced fireworks sellers are expecting record sales this year because Americans may likely celebrate at home as public displays are canceled.

Local departments — including Bakersfield Fire, Kern County Fire, Bakersfield Police, and Kern County Sheriff’s Office — have joined forces to combat an increase in illegal fireworks activity locally.

Bakersfield Fire Department has started establishing teams of unmarked vehicles and fire engine companies to issue $1,500 citations to those violating fireworks laws. Residents are asked to report violations to kerncountyfire.org.

For more information about firework usage and fines, visit youlightitwewriteit.com.

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If you or someone you know is injured in an accident at the fault of someone else, or injured on the job no matter whose fault it is, contact the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Stiles by calling (661) 323-4000, or fill out a free consultation form at chainlaw.com.

‘America’s deadliest police’ title hangs over Kern County as protests continue against law enforcement brutality

June 10, 2020 | 6:00 am


As protests against police brutality continue throughout Kern County, the United States, and the world, Chain | Cohn | Stiles would like to revisit this issue that has been brought up time and time again in our own community.

In fact, it was five years ago that The Guardian — a renowned British national daily newspaper that also covers issues in the United States — unveiled its five-part series that examined the use of deadly force, rough justice, sexual misconduct cases and other issues involving “America’s deadliest police” of Kern County. Among the cases highlighted were many of those involving wrongful deathpolice misconduct, sexual misconduct and civil rights cases over the years prior handled by the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Stiles.

“Police in Kern County, California, have killed more people per capita than in any other American county in 2015,” according to The Guardian’s report. “The Guardian examines how, with little oversight, officers here became the country’s most lethal.”

The Guardian’s series was part of a project called The Counted, highlighting the number of people killed by police and other law enforcement agencies in the United States throughout 2015, “to monitor their demographics and to tell the stories of how they died.” Why was this necessary? According to The Guardian, the U.S. government had no comprehensive record of the number of people killed by law enforcement at the time, and still doesn’t. And this lack of basic data has been glaring amid the protests, riots and worldwide debate set in motion by fatal police shootings.

Why focus on Kern County? The series tackled the issue of how police officers in Kern County are reportedly responsible for killing more local residents per capita than in any other county in the country — about 1.5 people per 100,000 residents.

Among the cases highlighted by the publication included:

  • David Sal Silva, who was killed on the night of May 7, 2013. Silva was asleep in front of a home in east Bakersfield, across from Kern Medical Center when several law enforcement officers arrived on scene and proceeded to use unreasonable and excessive force in striking Silva with batons several times all over his body, while he screamed for his life and repeatedly begged the officers to stop. After being repeatedly beaten, bitten and hog-tied, Silva stopped breathing. Shortly after midnight, Silva was taken to Kern Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. Chain | Cohn | Stiles filed a civil rights lawsuit in connection with the wrongful death of David Silva. On May 4, 2016, a settlement was reached for $3.4 million.
  • David Garcia, who was shot to death in January 2015 by Kern County Sheriff’s deputies while leaving his house unarmed. Deputies were called to the house to assist on a suicide attempt call. A settlement was reached in 2018.
  • James Moore was beaten to death by several deputies from the Kern County Sheriff’s Department while housed in central receiving downtown Bakersfield jail. On behalf of his family, Chain | Cohn | Stiles filed suit. Three deputies were prosecuted by the Kern County District Attorney’s Office for their roles in James’ death. The case settled for $6 million.
  • The series also highlighted three deputy-involved fatal crashes. In all three, Chain | Cohn | Stiles has filed claims and lawsuits on behalf of their families. Ultimately, the lawsuits led to reformed driving practices on the part of KCSO deputies. Those cases include:
    • Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley, who were killed in December 2011, when Kern County sheriff’s deputy John Swearengin struck and killed them as they pushed a motorcycle across Norris Road. Swearengin was traveling at more than 80 mph in a 45-mph zone, without activating his emergency lights or siren. The case settled in March for $8.8 million.
    • Nancy Garrett, who was killed in September 2014 in Oildale when a Kern County Sheriff’s Office patrol car operated by Deputy Nicholas Clerico struck and killed her. The California Highway Patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) found Deputy Clerico at fault in the crash, and the CHP report recommended that a vehicular manslaughter charge be filed against the deputy.
    • Larry Maharrey, who was killed when Kern County Sheriff’s Deputy Marvin Gomez abruptly made a left turn against a red light onto Airport Drive in Oildale directly into Maharrey’s motorcycle. Maharrey was unable to avoid the collision with Deputy Gomez’s patrol vehicle, and died as a result of the crash. The family, represented by Chain | Cohn | Stiles, and County of Kern settled the lawsuit for $3.8 million.

Then in 2016, the California Attorney General’s Office and the FBI launched investigations into Kern County Sheriff’s Office and the Bakersfield Police Department. That investigation is ongoing.

But this wasn’t the first time a Bakersfield police department had been investigated for an alleged pattern of excessive force. In 2003, the U.S. Department of Justice launched what would become a four-and-a-half year investigation after receiving numerous complaints of deadly and non-deadly excessive force and discriminatory policing methods. In April 2004, that department suggested policy changes in a 19-page letter to the department and Bakersfield Police Department began making those changes including some in its use-of-force and officer-involved shootings policies. In 2008, the federal department reviewed those changes and announced the BPD hadn’t stepped over any constitutional lines.

Still, claims and lawsuits against local law enforcement alleging misconduct, civil rights violations, and police brutality persist. In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California published a report following a two-year study that concluded law enforcement agencies in Kern County – specifically the Bakersfield Police Department and Kern County Sheriff’s Office – have engaged in patterns of excessive force and systematically violated the civil rights of local residents. ACLU called on the two departments to reform their policies, re-train and re-orient line and supervisory officers “towards a culture that emphasizes the consistent use of tactical alternatives to force and consequences for the use of unreasonable, unnecessary, or disproportionate force, and establish rigorous and independent oversight institutions to ensure the departments remain accountable and responsive to the communities they serve.

California Assembly Bill 392, which was signed into law and became effective Jan. 1, 2020, modified the conditions under which a police officer can legally use deadly force from times when it’s “reasonable” to when it’s “necessary.” Civil rights advocates say “the spirit of the measure – encouraging de-escalation and crisis-intervention methods – clearly attempts to induce greater restraint from officers, likely making it the strictest such law in the land,” according to a report by USA Today.

UPDATE – JUNE 11, 2020: The Bakersfield Police Department and Kern County Sheriff’s Office announced that the use of the carotid restraint control hold has been suspended pending further review, according to The Bakersfield Californian. The controversial choke hold restricts blood flow to the brain, causing the restrained person to lose consciousness. The announcement came as protests around the country have sprung up following the in-custody death of George Floyd on Memorial Day in Minneapolis. It was also the hold that was attributed to the death of James Moore, described above.

UPDATE – JUNE 16, 2020: KGET-17 News took a look at “qualified immunity” involving police officers and how it looks for local law enforcement. Reporter Karen Hua interviewed partner and attorney Matt Clark with Chain | Cohn | Stiles regarding civil rights, wrongful death, and police misconduct cases in Kern County, and how qualified immunity plays a part. Click here to view the news story.

UPDATE – DEC. 23, 2020: A settlement agreement between the California Department of Justice and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office was reached, requiring KCSO to enact an extensive list of reforms over five years aimed at ensuring the department protects citizens’ constitutional rights and treats individuals with respect and dignity.

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THE GUARDIAN SERIES

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If you or someone you know is injured by law enforcement, injured in an accident at the fault of someone else, or injured on the job no matter whose fault it is, contact the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Stiles by calling (661) 323-4000, or fill out a free consultation form at chainlaw.com.