.Caltrans Liable in Hwy 9 Death

Jury ruled that the department must pay 49% of $19.25M verdict due to unsafe road conditions

In a 10-2 decision, a 12-person jury has found Caltrans partly responsible for the 2019 death of 22-year-old pedestrian Josh Howard along Hwy 9.

In a verdict announced Wednesday afternoon in Santa Cruz County Superior Court after days of deliberation, the jury set damages at $19.25 million, ordering Jeremy Shreves, the motorist who struck Howard, to pay 51% ($9,817,500) and Caltrans to pay 49% ($9,432,500).

“The community has spoken up,” said Kelley Howard, Josh’s mother, who brought the lawsuit forward alongside Dimitri Jaumoville, the victim’s father. “It was good to hear other people who weren’t related to Josh feel the way I do.”

Howard said pursuing the lawsuit wasn’t about the money, but holding Caltrans accountable for neglecting to fix a busy road with narrow shoulders, despite persistent outcry from area residents.

“This isn’t a way to run a state agency,” she said. “[Local residents’ complaints] just fell on deaf ears, for years.”

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While the final verdict wasn’t unanimous, the jury voted 12-0 that the road was dangerous, a point Caltrans’ lawyers had fiercely disputed throughout the trial.

One of the jurors, 81-year-old Santa Cruz resident Alice Tarail, said she understood it could set a precedent.

Having led a walking group through Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park, she was familiar with the section of Hwy 9 where Howard was killed. She wanted to make the state agency pay a greater percentage of overall damages, but she was still impressed with the way the group had come up with a compromise. 

Jurors had suggested a range of totals, from several hundred thousand to $50 million.

“It was intense,” Tarail said of the process to get to the minimum of nine in-agreement to decide the case. 

A week ago during closing arguments, plaintiffs’ attorneys asked jurors to consider $72 million in damages, of which Caltrans would pay 75%, with Attorney Dana Scruggs pointing to the department’s failure to improve the section of road.

But Shelby Davitt, an attorney for Caltrans, said there’s only one person to blame for Howard’s death: Shreves.

“He shouldn’t have drifted towards that edge line,” she said. “He didn’t turn his wheel.”

She clicked to a screen with a giant blue “0” on it, indicating no pedestrian accidents had occurred there prior to Howard’s death. 

Judge Timothy Volkmann ordered the jurors to keep an open mind and avoid communicating about the case, including via social media, and sent them out to deliberate. Then he turned to Howard’s parents.

“I’m extremely sorry for your loss,” he said. “I have two kids of my own.”

Volkmann told the family that he was impressed with how well their lawyers represented their position. And he commended Caltrans’ representatives, too.

“Exceptional efforts,” he said. “All five of these attorneys are welcome in my court at any time.”

After the verdict arrived, Caltrans’ lawyers said it was too soon to say whether they’d appeal the decision.

1 COMMENT

  1. As a longtime resident of Felton, who everyday looks at that section of road, often with people walking along it, I want to thank Kelley and Dmitry for their bravery. They took a stand for what is right – in the face of terrible and profound loss. I’m sure the roads will be made safer for their work, and other lives will be saved.

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