A Contra Costa County jury has awarded $11.7 million to the family of a man who died on a badly maintained stretch of county road while trying to help an injured motorist.
The lawyer for the victim’s family said it “is one of the largest wrongful death awards against the county”. The accident occurred in 2008 on Marsh Creek Road, a common commuter route between Tracy and Walnut Creek.
After witnessing a car spin out on construction gravel, William Tindall pulled over and got out of his car to help the distressed driver. While Tindall was waiting for an ambulance to arrive, another car spun out on the gravelly turn in the road, hitting Tindal and killing him.
His family’s lawyer, Luke Ellis of Gillin, Jacobson, Ellis & Larsen in Orinda, said his death hit his close family hard. “There was a very close connection between the daughter, father and the wife” Ellis said.
The damages were well-supported by the evidence of a very rich family life. Tindall and his wife were described by friends and family as soul mates, and he and his then-10-year- old daughter shared a love of nature and hiking. The stretch of Marsh Creek Road where Tindall died was undergoing a & chip seal resurfacing.
Although this type of regular maintenance produces gravel debris, Ellis said the county had been negligent in keeping the road clear for driving for many years. During periods of resurfacing in 1994, 2001 and 2008, according to Ellis, drivers on the road experienced many serious accidents.
These drivers were placed in unreasonable conditions by the county Ellis said. The trial court made an error in allowing into evidence a number of prior accidents said Dennis Moriarty, who tried the case for the county, and this had the effect of inflaming the jury into granting an award that was much higher than one would expect.
Moriarty, of San Francisco’s Cesari Werner and Moriarty, said there had been some settlement talks, but declined to go into detail. The trial lasted three months, during which time Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Barry Goode allowed jurors to ask questions of witnesses.
Ellis said this is a regular practice for Goode, and that in this case it proved to be particularly engaging for the sophisticated jury made up of, among others, an engineer and a Ph.D. We had never seen a jury ask such in-depth, intelligent questions Ellis said. There didn’t seem to be any period of time when the jury was not engaged or involved.
At the beginning of trial, Ellis said, jurors seemed concerned with awarding a large amount in times of tight government budgets. Ellis said jurors were worried that funds would be diverted from schools or civic projects. But on Friday, after a day and a half of deliberations, the jury returned with the $11.7 million award. [The verdict] demonstrates that, in the right case, when the jury really understands the conduct of the governmental entity and when the award is justified … jurors are not afraid to award damages despite the current climate Ellis said.