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S.F. Hit With $27 Million Verdict

The Recorder
By Pam Smith
Recorder Staff Writer

A superior court jury decided Thursday that the city of San Francisco should pay $27.4 million to two families because of a two-car accident that sent a municipal truck hurtling into pedestrians, killing a 4-year-old girl.

If it stands, it would be the highest personal injury verdict ever against San Francisco, according to the city attorney’s office.

Plaintiff lawyer Kevin Boyle, in court with co-counsel Kirk Bernard on Thursday, called the verdict “a monument to the loss suffered by this family.”

As the jurors trickled out, some paused outside the courtroom to hug the plaintiffs, and a couple seemed to be fighting back tears.

In the 2003 truck accident, Municipal Railway worker Sebastian Garcia’s city truck collided with another car, then ran onto a sidewalk and fatally pinned Elizabeth Dominguez to the wall of a pizza parlor, according to court documents.

Elizabeth was walking with her mother Sylvia Lopez Dominguez, Candelaria Valencia, who suffered a leg injury, and Valencia’s granddaughter. Boyle, Bernard and co-counsel Brian Panish represented Elizabeth’s parents and the two Valencias. “They hope,” Panish said later, “the city will finally accept responsibility for what occurred.”

The city attorney’s office, which had been represented in court by deputy city attorneys John Aubrey and Karen Kirby, voiced sympathy for the victims, but also said the jury went too far.

“Our hearts go out to the family of Elizabeth Dominguez, as well as the driver, whose life was forever altered by a terribly unfortunate accident,” said Matt Dorsey, spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera.

Herrera’s office has been “sympathetic to the notion of reaching some kind of just compensation,” Dorsey added. “But it’s our position that the evidence simply does not support an award of $27 million, which appears excessive in several respects.”

The city attorney “is evaluating his post-trial options,” Dorsey added.

He said the plaintiffs at one point in the trial had suggested numbers that added up to about $100 million in compensation. Boyle countered Thursday that the plaintiffs had never named a specific number, and had just posed rhetorical questions about the value of what his clients had listed.

Thursday’s $27,394,567 verdict was made up entirely of compensatory damages, because the jury did not find city employee Sebastian Garcia’s conduct malicious, said Boyle.

Though the verdict amount doesn’t approach any of the top 10 verdicts in California last year, it was higher than almost all of the 2004 verdicts in San Francisco Superior Court, according to Verdict Search, a Recorder affiliate that tracks verdicts.

The city maintained that the verdict in Dominguez v. San Francisco, 422963, is difficult to measure against others, though. “There were four plaintiffs,” Dorsey noted. And, he added, “It was a freak accident.”

Back in July, before the civil trial started, the city appeared worried that Garcia wouldn’t testify for the defense because he was also facing a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter that hasn’t gone to trial.

The city tried unsuccessfully to delay the civil case until the criminal one was resolved by arguing that the court was forcing Garcia to choose between asserting his Fifth Amendment rights and defending against civil liability.

In the end, according to Boyle, Garcia waived his Fifth Amendment rights and testified. His criminal trial has also been pushed back, until early next year.

Boyle and Panish, from Panish Shea & Boyle, and Bernard, from the Law Office of Kirk B. Bernard, are based in Los Angeles.

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