Fire captain’s family awarded $2.7 million for fatal off-duty accident

The family of a Los Angeles County Fire Department captain was awarded $2.7 million last week by a jury that found the late firefighter and Caltrans were also responsible for a 2019 collision between his Jeep and a dump truck.

On January 23, 2019, Capt. Michael Shepard, 63, was off duty when his Jeep hit the back of the truck around 11 a.m. on Highway 14 in Santa Clarita. He died that day, according to a complaint filed by his family in September 2019.

In court papers, the state of California argued that Shepard caused the collision when he passed a Caltrans vehicle that was part of a highway sweeping operation and failed to check if it was clear when he merged the lanes.

Multiple vehicles were involved in the sweeping operation in what was described in court documents as a “moving closure” on the freeway. The vehicles kept a distance from each other as they made frequent stops, according to the state defense. The state also argued that Shepard was traveling at high speed, but did not specify what that speed was when he overturned the dump truck.

Shepard’s family said a Caltrans truck driver failed to turn on his flashing lights when he pulled into the left shoulder and carpool lane to clear debris, according to their complaint. Shepard’s daughter, Conni Billes; his widow, Catherine Shepard, and their son, Clint Shepard, sued the state, the California Department of Transportation, Caltrans driver Pedro Gonzalez Beltran and Herc Rentals Inc.

According to court records, Shepard’s family members declined a $1.5 million settlement offer after they filed their lawsuit.

The family’s attorney, Tal Rubin, said the LA County Superior Court jury awarded the family damages for loss of love and companionship as well as the stipulated amount of lost earnings, bringing the total to $5.4 million. But the verdict was halved, to $2.7 million, as the jury found Shepard was also responsible for the fatal collision.

“Although Mr. Shepard struck the Caltrans truck from behind, the jury found that Caltrans failed to follow several safety guidelines listed in Caltrans service manuals,” Rubin said in a statement. “Specifically, the Caltrans truck involved in the crash had no rotating amber lights or other identifying markings, and the truck was also too far into the fast lane ahead of the convoy, when it was supposed to. be in a tighter formation.”

Those factors contributed to the jury’s decision to find the transportation agency 50% responsible for the crash, Rubin said.

Los Angeles Times

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