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Home News Latest County, deputy sued over October 2013 crash that claimed Clearlake woman’s life

County, deputy sued over October 2013 crash that claimed Clearlake woman’s life

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LAKE COUNTY, Calif. – The family of a woman who died last fall in a vehicle crash involving a Lake County Sheriff's deputy has filed a lawsuit against the county of Lake, alleging the deputy had alcohol in his system at the time of the wreck.

Santa Rosa attorney Jeremy Fietz filed the wrongful death suit on Tuesday on behalf of his clients, Gloria Garcia Gamino and Jose Daniel Rivas Cruz of Mexico, parents of Gabriela Rivas Garcia of Clearlake.

It names the county of Lake, Deputy Scott Lewis and 20 as-yet unnamed defendants, and seeks general, special and punitive damages, as well as all legal costs.

Garcia, 26, died on Oct. 3 in a head-on crash with Lewis on Highway 29 north of Diener Drive.

She was driving to her job at a vineyard in the Kelseyville area when she was hit by Lewis' 2009 Chevy Tahoe patrol vehicle, which crossed into the path of her 1995 Honda Civic while en route to a report of a home invasion robbery in Lower Lake.

Garcia died at the scene. Lewis suffered severe injuries and was flown to an out-of-county trauma center. Bill Eagleton, a correctional officer who was in another car behind Garcia, had minor injuries after the rear of Lewis' SUV hit the front of his 1997 Geo.

Gamino and Cruz filed a tort claim with the county in January, seeking in excess of $10 million, as Lake County News reported earlier this year.

The county's third party liability administrator, the George Hills Co., denied that claim, County Counsel Anita Grant told Lake County News.

Grant said on Wednesday that the county had not yet been served with the lawsuit.

Fietz said he intended to have the county formally served within the next few days.

New allegations arise from grand jury testimony

The allegations that Lewis had alcohol in his system come from grand jury testimony given in January in the case involving the suspects in the home invasion to which Lewis was responding, according to Fietz.

The grand jury transcript was provided to him by “another interested party,” he said.

Blood work done on Lewis showed that he had “at least” a blood alcohol level of 0.01 percent as of 7:50 a.m., about an hour and a half after the crash and two hours after reporting for duty, the case filing states.

The case alleges that, using “scientifically accepted rates of alcohol absorption,” it can be extrapolated that Lewis had a blood alcohol of 0.04 to 0.05 at the time of the crash.

Fietz said he has not yet gotten the direct blood alcohol test results on Lewis conducted by the California Department of Justice. He said it was an exhibit during the grand jury proceedings.

Citing the Lake County Sheriff's Office's own policy, which he acquired through a Public Records Act request, Fietz pointed out that it is a violation of policy for deputies to report for duty while there is any detectable amount of alcohol in their system.

District Attorney Don Anderson confirmed that Lewis' blood alcohol level being 0.01 came out during the grand jury proceedings.

Fietz questioned why Lewis continued to take part in the pursuit after it was confirmed that two other deputies who were closer – Stephen Wright and William Djernes – were en route.

“Time and time and time again, he made the wrong decision,” Fietz said, suggesting Lewis either didn't want to pull out and have to admit to violating department policy due to his alcohol level, or that he “cowboyed” it and decided to continue due to the thrill of the pursuit.

Fietz said that according to his reading of sheriff's policy, no deputy can ever be disciplined for pulling out of a pursuit due to safety reasons, even if they are the only deputy nearby.

“There was every opportunity for him to avoid this, and that is the real tragedy, this was totally avoidable,” Fietz said.

After the county is served, it will have 30 days to respond, and then Fietz can begin depositions and discovery.

He expects that an initial case management hearing is at least a few months out. “Nothing really substantive is going to happen in that first hearing,” he said, adding he suspects the county will attack the punitive damages aspects of the suit early on.

The suit does not seek a specific amount of damages, which Fietz said is up to the jury to decide.

He said he intends to talk to the jury about Garcia's life and her devotion to her parents, to whom she regularly sent money.

The loss of their daughter, he said, will leave a hole in their lives.

Her parents will testify, as will her fiancé of six years, who is not able to file suit due to what Fietz called “antiquated” and unfair California law that doesn’t recognize unmarried partners.

Grant said her office will not handle the lawsuit.

“This is under our tort liability insurance policy,” she said.

As part of that process, the George Hills Co. generally recommends firms available to take such cases.

“The county has input into that, obviously,” Grant said.

She also is authorized by the county to select the firm to take the case.

Collision report pending completion

Anderson said his office is currently working on separate cases related to the crash – the home invasion, the critical incident protocol investigation and an investigation into whether Lewis has criminal negligence.

The January grand jury proceeding that revealed Lewis’ blood alcohol issue led to a murder charge being added to the numerous felonies facing the four Lower Lake home invasion suspects – Clearlake residents James Robert Conaster, Jesse Gilbert Moncivaiz and Angelita Jeanette Raffa, and Lauren Astor Faumuina of Middletown.

Regarding the critical incident protocol investigation and the inquiry into Lewis’ actions, Anderson said he is awaiting the completion of the final report by the California Highway Patrol Northern Division's Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team, or MAIT.

Anderson said Wednesday that the report – which has been under way since the crash occurred last October – is expected in about a month, and is necessary if he were to pursue a criminal filing.

He said it could then take him a few more months to do followup investigations to complete his findings.

“It’s going to take quite a bit of time to go over the whole thing,” Anderson said.

The MAIT report will reconstruct the crash, determine how it occurred and what was the direct cause, identify mitigating factors and gives Lewis' precise speed at the time of the collision, according to Anderson.

As for the amount of alcohol in Lewis' system, Anderson said he doesn't want to pass any judgments until they get the report.

He said he also will call on the California Department of Justice and medical experts to give input on how much alcohol Lewis may have had in his system at the time of the crash.

Email Elizabeth Larson at . Follow her on Twitter, @ERLarson, or Lake County News, @LakeCoNews.

040114 Garcia Wrongful Death Lawsuit

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Comments (5)Add Comment
Over The Top
Déjà vu
written by Over The Top, April 04, 2014
Lets see here - intoxicated deputy, driving to fast, crashes, kills a lady. family sues county and deputy. OK Frank Rivero - lets see how you (or in your case, your staff) deal with this situation.
Marzocco - You might have had a point - but....
written by Lake_County_Blight, April 04, 2014
the MAIT team was in place on the DAY of the accident; in point of fact, that is one of the reasons that Highway 29 traffic was diverted at Pt. Lakeview and Soda Bay Road (Kit's Corner) along Highway 29 and if I remember that day correctly, the Highway was shut down longer than anticipated. It has been over 5 months, and it's not exactly unknown how (excessive speed, driver inattention [the Deputy's]) or why (wanting to be a part of the chase in Lower Lake which at he time of the crash had moved on to the City limits of Clearlake).

I am hoping that there might be some exculpatory evidence (for example - brake failure, stuck gas pedal, whatever) indicating a mechanical failure in the deputy's vehicle otherwise, this was a deputy who was quite literally out of control and an innocent person was KILLED due to this deputy's recklessness. The things you cite (determining speed at time of impact, witness interviews, etc.) do NOT take 5 months to complete. The BAC levels are available almost immediately after an accident and I would point to the Grand Jury proceedings as proof that most of what you say is taking time as already been completed.

Do I live in Utopia? No, I don't. I don't think it is unreasonable that a report which we were told would take 5 months to be completed be completed on time. If this were John Q. Public and not a deputy, you know and I know, that they would not wait 5 months to complete a report and then charge you or I for the accident. The deputy has gotten the better end of the stick from what I can see. He survived the accident (albeit with injuries) and the news outlets of Lake County have lauded his law enforcement career. Too bad no one locally has spent as much time or effort on behalf of the deceased. I had to read about her life in the Press Democrat.

Do I live in Utopia? No, not even close.
written by a guest, April 03, 2014
Lake County Blight. You must be living in an Utopian state. When is the last time a government agency be it federal, state, county or local has finished an investigation, a project or a study on time?
How many times a project was finally finished years after the projected date and at cost twice or more than the original bidding?
Too many unknowns pop up that delay or slow down the investigation. Labs being too busy to test BAC, longer than thought tests on the damaged cars to determine the speed at the time of impact. Delays in interviewing all witnesses. The deputies association and the attorney representing the deputy involved in the crash needing time to review all the facts to protect his rights. After all, just because he is a deputy we cannot deny him the same rights against self incrimination that protect every citizen. And who knows how many other factors.
Considering we are only three days after the end of March and the report might be ready next month, it is not too bad.

Hog Wash!
written by Lake_County_Blight, April 03, 2014
When the incident first occurred, we were told that the MAIT report would be available in March. Well, March has come and gone and now we're being told it will be ready in another 30 days. Hog wash.
A Guest
Another black eye for the Sheriff
written by a guest, April 03, 2014
The information coming from inside the Sheriff Office is this deputy had a serious Internal Affiars Invesitgation pending against him when Rivero took office for which it was expected he would be terminated. Apparently, Sheriff Rivero dismissed the investigation due to his dislike for the previous Sheriff and not on the grounds of the investigation itself. That decision may have cost this woman her life and the County of Lake millions of dollars.

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