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Monday, Dec 03 2012 07:49 PM

Attorney, witness square off in Harb injury civil trial

BY STEVEN MAYER Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

The cross-examination of one witness became so heated in the Harb trial Monday the judge admonished both the witness and an attorney for the defense, Mick Marderosian, before allowing testimony to continue.

With as much as $25 million riding on the outcome of the personal injury civil case, tensions in the courtroom sometimes have run high. And Monday's hours-long testimony by police procedurals consultant Roger Clark was no exception.

Clark, who served more than 27 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department before retiring in 1997, was retained by Thomas Brill, the lead attorney for the Harb family, to review written reports and witness depositions, and critique the actions of former Bakersfield police officer Claudia Payne and others on the evening of Nov. 24, 2007.

That day, the life of Dr. Mohamad Harb was forever changed when he suffered a hemorrhagic stroke while driving, just minutes after finishing a shift at Kern Medical Center, where he headed the intensive care unit for very sick infants.

Harb's Mercedes veered off 24th Street, near Oak Street, bursting a tire against the curb. According to a witness, he stumbled out of his Mercedes, urinated, acted confused, and reportedly tried to get back in his car and drive away.

He was handcuffed by police -- and the dispute over what happened during the next several minutes would become the basis for this civil trial expected to continue into mid-December.

In his testimony, Clark told the jury that Payne's written report was incomplete and below minimum standards for police officers.

"It omits important facts," he said.

For example, it fails to mention that the first ambulance Payne called to the scene left without Harb. And it makes no mention of the second ambulance that ultimately carried the then 57-year-old stroke victim to KMC's emergency room -- arriving about an hour after the original 911 call.

But Clark also took issue with the timing of the calls for medical assistance. According to the dispatch reports, it took Payne 12 minutes from the time she arrived at the scene to call for the first ambulance.

But two assisting officers were on scene soon after Payne's arrival, and according to witnesses, Harb was quickly placed in handcuffs.

"If there is no ongoing crime -- and three officers were on-scene in minutes -- then you focus on medical need," Clark told the jury.

Basing his testimony on universally accepted Police Officer Standards and Training, or POST, and his own years of experience, Clark asserted an ambulance should have been called within five minutes of Payne's arrival.

Even if he was under the influence of drugs, as police apparently suspected, Harb might still have been in urgent need of medical attention, in a "downward spiral," Clark said.

And if Payne sent away the first ambulance -- which she denies but the first Hall paramedic swears to -- it would have been a serious violation of procedural standards, Clark said.

"Did she indicate in her report that she was given medical clearance on Harb?" Brill asked Clark.

"No," he said.

As Clark's testimony was focused on the actions of Bakersfield police, Jim Braze, the attorney defending Hall Ambulance, declined to cross-examine.

Marderosian, on the other hand, was assertive and rapid-fire in his cross of Clark, several times calling into question Clark's professional qualifications, his criticisms of the police and his overall knowledge of the case.

After establishing that Clark had not been a basic patrol officer since 1970, and that he worked in that role for only two years, Marderosian suggested repeatedly that Clark's experience was less than ideal, less than sufficient. Clark later noted, however, that he worked in the field on many occasions throughout his career, even after promotions to sergeant and lieutenant.

The defense attorney also questioned Clark about how he arrived at the five-minute standard as the maximum time that should have elapsed before Payne called for an ambulance.

"I want you to find that standard and read that standard ..." Marderosian demanded of the witness.

Clark was forced to acknowledge that the number is not in the written standards, but was a limit based on his knowledge of the standards and his long experience in dealing with such cases.

But Clark also pushed back, asserting that having Harb in handcuffs was tantamount to an arrest.

As the tone and tension in the exchange rose to an uncomfortable pitch, Kern County Superior Court Judge J. Eric Bradshaw finally broke in, admonishing both men to "conduct an appropriate question-and-answer format."

Asked by Marderosian what he was being paid by the plaintiffs' attorneys, Clark said he is being paid $150 per hour for research and other work, and $300 per hour for court testimony.

Clark is expected to be the plaintiff team's last major witness, which could soon open the door to the beginning of the defense's case.

The city of Bakersfield and Hall Ambulance will be watching closely. On the other side, the Harb family will be, too.

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