Ventura County’s largest ever personal injury verdict stands at $35 million after a judge threw out the defense’s motions for a new trial in a civil lawsuit brought by a California Highway Patrol officer who was paralyzed when a motorist struck him during a traffic stop.
CHP officer Anthony Pedeferri was left paralyzed in 2007 after Jeremy White of Paso Robles veered off Highway 101 near Faria Beach and struck Pedeferri and the vehicle he had pulled over for a routine traffic stop. Rolando Parra, the driver of the pulled-over vehicle, was killed. White was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2008 for his role in the accident.
Pedeferri and Parra’s family later filed a civil lawsuit against White and the owners of Bert’s Mega Mall in Covina, an outlet that sells motorcycles and other off-road vehicles. The families sued Bert’s because White was returning from Covina with two motorcycles he had purchased from Bert’s. Employees at Bert’s strapped the motorcycles into White’s truck.
White would later testify that he was distracted by the motorcycles moving in the back of his truck while riding over a rough portion of Highway 101. Pedeferri and Parra’s attorneys argued that the distraction contributed to the accident. A jury determined that Bert’s shared one-third of the liability in the case for its role. In January, the jury awarded $39.4 million in damages to Pedeferri and $10.2 million to the family of Parra for a total verdict of $49.6 million.
In May, Ventura County Superior Court Judge Vincent O’Neill lowered those damages to $30.5 million and $4.6 million. He also denied post-verdict motions from White and Bert’s attorneys to throw out the verdict altogether and a motion for a new trial because of alleged juror misconduct.
The defense attorneys had gathered declarations from three jurors in the case claiming at least one juror was pressured into a verdict. The attorneys for Pedeferri and the Parra family submitted declarations from eight jurors that contradicted those claims, and Judge O’Neill sided with the plaintiffs, sealing the trial at the Superior Court level.
Pedeferri’s attorneys, Erik Feingold of Myers, Widders, Gibson, Jones & Schneider in Ventura and Los Angeles plaintiff’s trial lawyer Mike Alder, say the defense has indicated it will appeal. No formal appeal has yet been filed, and Terrence Cranert, the attorney who represented Bert’s at the trial, said company policy prevented him from commenting for this story.
Pedeferri’s attorneys say they expect Bert’s attorneys to attack both the amount of damages awarded and the jury’s decision that Bert’s was partly liable for the accident.
“The basic argument was that the accident could not have happened without a bad, inattentive driver who was distracted by the motorcycle’s movement [in the back of his truck],” Alder said. “If the driver was better or the motorcycle didn’t move, the accident wouldn’t have happened, so both things contributed to the accident.”
Feingold expects an argument that the connection between what Bert’s employees did — strapping motorcycles into the back of White’s truck — and the accident was too tenuous.
“They’re going to ask the court of appeals to hold that Bert’s Mega Mall never owed a duty to my client — that there was too much attenuation between what they did in Covina and what happened 150 miles later,” Feingold said.
Feingold said he also expects to face an appeal of how much Judge O’Neill lowered the verdict, which he said the defense argued was a product of “passion and prejudice rather than reason.” But Alder said his client accepted the lower amount O’Neill offered.
“While I’m certainly not happy with any amount being cut from the verdict, I don’t think the judge was unreasonable or unfair in any way,” Alder said.
Herb Fox, an expert in California appellate law who is not representing either side in the case, said the statistical odds are against Bert’s for a successful appeal.
“Eighty percent of all judgments are affirmed,” Fox said. “Courts of appeal in general are institutionally inclined to support a jury verdict.”
Fox said that state appeals courts don’t usually revisit the decisions made by judges or jurors unless there’s a lot of evidence that a reasonable judge or jury would not have reached similar conclusions. But what an appeals court could re-examine from the ground up is whether Bert’s should bear liability for its role in the accident. That’s because that question is partly a one of the facts of the case and partly one of public policy. Judge O’Neill declined to enter the public policy debate.
“How far does the law want to go to make somebody responsible for something that is largely unforeseeable? Who would have connected how [Bert’s] tied the motorcycles down to this kind of an accident?” Fox said. “There is a question about whether Bert’s Mega Mall is liable at all.”
In the meantime, the judgment will accrue 10 percent interest while an appeal is filed. While the appeals court headquartered in Ventura County has one of the fastest turnaround times in the state, Fox said it could still take as long as 18 months for a decision.
“With the judgments in these amounts, it’s going to be worth the defendant’s time to have an attorney take a serious look at turning this around,” Fox said.
• Contact Stephen Nellis at [email protected]