B. Mark Fong Settles Drowning Case at Port of Stockton

On February 7, 2009 Ray T., a stevedore at the Port of Stockton, was getting off work where he had been supervising the offloading of a cargo ship.  As Ray drove along the dock in his Honda Civic, a Port of Stockton police car exited a warehouse and struck Ray’s car at low speed.  A few seconds later, Ray’s car began to accelerate at a high rate of speed (up to 60-70 miles per hour) in a straight line away from the site of the crash.  The car travelled the length of a football field and launched off the end of the dock into the water, where it floated for about 8 minutes while Port personnel tried to figure out how to reach it.  Finally, the car sank with Ray inside.

A wrongful death suit was brought against the Port and its police department by Ray’s family, alleging 1) the Port police officer was negligent for driving into Ray, and 2) the Port created a dangerous condition of public property by failing to regulate vehicle traffic so as to prevent cars from crashing into each other, and by not having lifesaving equipment mandated by Federal OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration.)

The Defendants claimed the accident was relatively minor and there was no reason for Ray to have driven off the dock.  Our theory was that Ray became disoriented from the crash and fell victim to “pedal misapplication,” which is where a driver mistakenly steps on the accelerator thinking it is the brake.  To complicate the case, Ray was found in cardiac arrest when he was pulled from the water; defendants argued this heart condition was what caused the accident and Ray to drive off the dock, not pedal misapplication.

To bolster our case we had the “black box” (vehicle data recorder) in Ray’s Honda examined to see if his airbag deployed in the crash with the police car, which could have contributed to Ray becoming disoriented.  This proved challenging because the data recorder had been submerged in salt water and became corroded, and the algorithms to decode the information were Honda’s proprietary trade secrets.  We hired a preeminent black box expert, Bill Rosenbluth, who was able to determine that the driver’s side airbag deployed in the crash, as we suspected.

We also showed the accident could not have been caused by Ray going into cardiac arrest, as there was significant water found in his lungs, which proved that he died due to drowning rather than cardiac arrest.

After three mediation sessions, we were able to settle this case for Ray’s widow and two adult children for $950,000, which was a combination of new money and benefits Ray’s widow received from workers compensation.

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