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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CRASH MEDIA COVERAGE

CLAIM MEDIA COVERAGE

PRESS CONFERENCE MEDIA COVERAGE

LAWSUIT MEDIA COVERAGE

‘JUDICIAL EMERGENCY’ MEDIA COVERAGE

SETTLEMENT MEDIA COVERAGE

‘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.

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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.

Chain | Cohn | Stiles resolves wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of family of motorcyclist killed in crash with Sheriff’s deputy patrol car

May 9, 2018 | 9:34 am


Chain | Cohn | Stiles has reached a settlement with the County of Kern on behalf of the family of a motorcyclist who was killed in 2015 when a Kern County Sheriff’s patrol car abruptly made a turn against a red light directly into his path.

The crash involving 59-year-old Larry Maharrey garnered media attention as it was the fourth fatality in as many years involving a Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicle.

The parties agreed to a $3.8 million settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit.

“These are tragic cases where you have individuals who are completely innocent who were killed in traffic collisions. Those are the types of accidents that shouldn’t happen, especially involving officers who are trained to protect these very same people,” said Matt Clark, Chain | Cohn | Stiles attorney for the family.

Clark continued: “It’s incredibly unfortunate an innocent man died. Maharrey’s family is satisfied with the resolution, but it’s not like the resolution will bring him back.”

On July 14, 2015, Maharrey was driving his motorcycle eastbound on Norris Road in Oildale, when the deputy abruptly made a left turn against a red light onto Airport Drive directly into Maharrey’s path. Maharrey was unable to avoid the collision with the patrol vehicle, and died as a result of the crash.

The California Highway Patrol determined that Sgt. Marvin Gomez and Maharrey did not become visible to each other until 0.87 seconds before the collision because other vehicles blocked their view. CHP had recommended a misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charge against Gomez, but the District Attorney’s office declined to file a criminal charge. Chain | Cohn | Stiles contends that Deputy Gomez violated KCSO policies and procedures by failing to pre-clear the intersection before turning left against a red light.

Maharrey’s death came at the heels of another wrongful death lawsuit filed by Chain | Cohn | Stiles on behalf of the family of Nancy Garrett, who was struck and killed by KCSO deputy Nicholas Clerico in 2014, also in the Oildale area. This case is ongoing. Less than four years before Maharrey’s death, Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley were killed 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, also represented by Chain | Cohn | Stiles, settled in March 2014 for $8.8 million.

For more than 20 years, Maharrey worked for Golden State Drilling as a diesel mechanic. At his vigil, friends and family described him as “a good man” who would do anything for anyone in need. He especially enjoyed fishing and, of course, riding his motorcycle.

MEDIA COVERAGE

Kern County Sheriff’s comments from leaked video on cost of deadly force causes controversy

April 18, 2018 | 9:53 am


A video released recently showing Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood telling an employees union that it is better “financially” to kill suspects than to “cripple” them has sparked controversy locally and nationwide.

In the one-minute video filmed in 2006 during his first campaign for sheriff, Youngblood is seen seated at a table discussing deputy trainings and the cost to the sheriff’s office due to police violence.

Chain | Cohn | Stiles attorney Matt Clark discussed Youngblood’s comments recently while on The Richard Beene Show on KERN Radio 1180, 96.1. You can listen to the full interview here.

The Bakersfield Californian described a portion of the video:

Youngblood, in response to a question about officer training, said that detention deputies are trained more extensively than they used to be because of the cost the county faces when deputies kill or injure a person.

“There’s a good reason for that: millions and millions of dollars,” Youngblood said. “You know what happens if a guy makes a bad shooting on somebody — kills them,” Youngblood said. “Three million bucks and the family goes away.”

It’s “a totally different ballgame” when it happens in a jail to an inmate who is in restraints and surrounded by multiple officers, Youngblood said.

“It’s no different than when a deputy shoots someone on the streets, which way do you think is better financially? To cripple them or kill them, for the county,” Youngblood asks.

“Kill them,” said a voice from the audience.

“Absolutely,” Youngblood replies. “Because if we cripple them we get to take care of them for life, and that cost goes way up.”

The comments from the video were related to a discussion about the 2005 in-custody beating death of James Moore, who was beaten by several Kern County detentions deputies. That wrongful death case, represented by Chain | Cohn | Stiles on behalf of Moore’s family, resulted in a $6 million settlement. The killing also led to criminal charges against the deputies.

Lawyer Matt Clark said Youngblood’s comments speak to a culture within the sheriff’s department that life is not valued, and shared that families of victims of wrongful death at the hands of sheriff’s deputies — of which there have been several in recent years — are upset over the sheriff’s comments.

“Doesn’t that provide a mindset in that department that human life isn’t worth that much?” Clark said. “Having represented families who have lost loved ones due to the negligent and sometimes criminal conduct of the sheriff’s department, I can tell you (the families of victims) are not pleased to hear that.”

Specifically, Clark discussed several wrongful death, civil rights, and excessive force cases represented in recent years by Chain | Cohn | Stiles:

  • Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley were pushing the motorcycle to a relative’s house crossing Norris Road in Oildale when they were struck and killed by a Kern County Sheriff’s deputy patrol car, speeding with lights and sirens off. The wrongful death case settled for $8.8 million.
  • Chain | Cohn | Stiles filed 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 patrol car operated by Deputy Nicholas Clerico struck and killed her.
  • On July 14 2015, Larry Maharrey was driving his motorcycle eastbound on Norris Road when a Kern County Sheriff’s deputy abruptly made a left turn against a red light onto Airport Drive directly into Maharrey’s path. Maharrey was unable to avoid the collision with Deputy Gomez’s patrol vehicle, and died as a result of the crash.
  • On the night of May 7, 2013, David Sal Silva fell asleep in front of a home in east Bakersfield, across from Kern Medical Center. 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. And shortly after midnight, Silva was taken to Kern Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead. A wrongful death lawsuit settlement was reached in May 2016 for $3.4 million.

In most of these cases, deputies suffered little consequences or punishment despite breaking department policies in the situations that led to these tragic deaths, Clark said.

This isn’t the first time the Kern County Sheriff’s Office has been the center of controversy for its practices and history of deadly force.

In December 2015, The Guardian publication 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. Then 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 have engaged in patterns of excessive force and systematically violated the civil rights of local residents. The California Attorney General’s Office is currently investigating patterns of excessive force and civil rights violations in Kern County’s departments.

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If you or someone you know is the victim of excessive force, police misconduct, or other civil rights violations, please contact the attorneys at Chain | Cohn | Stiles by calling (661) 323-4000, or visit the website chainlaw.com.

Wrongful death case involving speeding deputy continues after plea deal in criminal case

April 26, 2017 | 9:37 am


A former Kern County Sheriff’s deputy has pleaded “no contest” in connection with a crash that killed a 72-year-old Oildale woman in 2014, a crash also connected to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Chain | Cohn | Stiles on behalf of her family.

Nicholas Clerico will receive three years probation, must pay a $570 fine and serve 240 hours of community service after pleading no contest on April 25 to a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter.

Chain | Cohn | Stiles filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the family of Nancy Joyce Garrett, who was killed when Clerico struck and killed her in his speeding patrol car. The filing came after the California Highway Patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) report found Deputy Clerico at fault in the September 2014 crash, at the intersection of North Chester Avenue and China Grade Loop in Oildale.

Chain | Cohn | Stiles attorney Matt Clark, who is representing Garrett’s family in the case, commented to local media on Clerico’s plea and the ongoing wrongful death civil lawsuit.

“In talking with the family, they’re glad that (Clerico) has finally accepted some responsibility for what he did,” Clark told The Bakersfield Californian, adding that the family, however, has not received closure, and continues to mourn Garrett’s loss. “This was no accident. This was totally preventable.”

Family members have described Nancy as 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.

Garrett’s family is seeking changes within the sheriff’s department in how deputies are trained to drive. Her death, unfortunately, is not the only one related to driving by Kern County Sheriff’s deputies.

  • Larry Maharrey 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. That wrongful death case represented by Chain | Cohn | Stiles, is ongoing.
  • 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. Chain | Cohn | Stiles settled that case in March 2014 for $8.8 million.

UPDATE – 2020: The wrongful death case on behalf of the family of Nancy Joyce Garrett has resolved.

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PLEA DEAL MEDIA COVERAGE

PAST CASE MEDIA COVERAGE

Bakersfield crashes involving law enforcement vehicles share similar stories

May 4, 2015 | 10:31 am


Late last week, a family of four was driving in southwest Bakersfield when a Bakersfield Police officer driving his cruiser at freeway speeds crashed into them head-on, family members told Eyewitness News.

The officer, they said, did not have his lights or sirens on. The officer suffered minor to moderate injuries while the family members also were injured, and some were taken to the hospital. Fortunately, no one died in the crash.

Family members told Eyewitness News they were trying to turn left onto Wilson Road, yielding to oncoming traffic, when the patrol car swerved into them. Bakersfield Police Department said it’s continuing its investigation.

The case is eerily familiar to two recent cases handled by the Bakersfield-based law firm Chain | Cohn | Stiles in which law enforcement officers driving at unsafe speeds have crashed with local residents. Unfortunately in those cases, fatalities occurred.

  • Last year, Chain | Cohn | Stiles settled a wrongful death lawsuit between the County of Kern and the families of two people killed by a speeding Kern County Sheriff’s deputy. That $8.8 million settlement is believed to be record-breaking for an automobile accident case against the County of Kern. Chain | Cohn | Stiles managing partner David Cohn represented Daniel Hiler’s fiancee and two young sons. The 24-year-old was struck and killed along with Chrystal Jolley, 30, in late 2011 by Kern County Sherriff’s Deputy John Swearengin. Both were crossing a road in Oildale when Swearengin’s patrol vehicle struck and killed them. Swearengin was driving 84 mph in a 45 mph zone before hitting Hiler and Jolley. He was responding to a call of a stolen vehicle; however, his emergency lights and sirens were not turned on. Law enforcement officers can travel in excess of the posted speed limit so long as their forward facing overhead lights are activated to warn others that they are responding to an emergency, but Swearengin didn’t do that, Cohn said. In fact, the deputy violated several policies and procedures. The Hiler family received $4.8 million from the settlement.
  • And in September last year, 72-year-old Nancy Joyce Garrett was driving her vehicle at the intersection of North Chester Avenue and China Grade Loop in Oildale when she was struck and killed by a Kern County Sheriff’s Department patrol vehicle. She had just returned to Bakersfield from a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game she attended with her family and friends. The California Highway Patrol’s MAIT Team is still conducting an investigation of the collision.

“Under nearly every circumstance, law enforcement officers driving department vehicles are bound to the same rules of the road as everyday citizens unless they’re operating with lights or sirens when it’s necessary,” said Matt Clark, attorney at Chain | Cohn | Stiles. “That certainly doesn’t appear to be what happened in this recent case.”

If you or someone you know has been injured in a car accident at the fault of someone else, contact Chain | Cohn | Stiles at 661-323-4000, or visit the website chainlaw.com.