Local News

Monday, Mar 03 2014 04:49 PM

County to pay $2.3M of settlement in 2011 deputy driving case

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    By Casey Christie / The Californian

    John Swearengin walks out of the downtown courtroom after his arraignment in October 2012 for two counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence in connection with the deaths of Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley. Swearengin pleaded no contest to one count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for both victims and was sentenced to 480 hours of community service on Aug. 14, 2014.

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BY JAMES BURGER Californian staff writer jburger@bakersfield.com

Kern County will pay approximately $2.3 million of the $8.8 million settlement going to the families of two people killed when a Kern County Sheriff's deputy's car hit them while they were crossing Norris Road in December 2011.

"This was a tragic accident that took the lives of two people," Supervisor Leticia Perez said Monday. "The settlement will avoid a trial, which, in this case, is appropriate."

The two cases were resolved for $4.8 and $4 million to the families of Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley, respectively. The county's insurance company will pay the remaining $6.5 million.

Hiler, 24, and Jolley, 30, were pushing an inoperable motorcycle across Norris Road about 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 16, 2011 when Deputy John Swearengin, now 36, hit them with his patrol car.

Swearengin was traveling at more than 80 mph in a 45-mph zone without emergency lights or sirens, according to a California Highway Patrol investigation.

Attorneys for the county and Jolley said the settlement was reached because both sides wanted to avoid the risks associated with trial. Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner said the purpose of the settlement was to provide income replacement and other compensation for the families of the victims.

"Almost all of the money paid to the plaintiffs will be placed into a structured settlement and be paid out in monthly payments and occasional lump sum payments throughout the children's lives," she said.

Attorney Thomas Brill of the Law Offices of Young & Nichols represented Jolley's family and said nearly all of the $4 million his clients will be paid will be placed in trust for her children -- Michael Shane Jolley, Chloe Jolley and Arian Phillips until they turn 18.

He said the settlement allows the children -- ages 7 to 13 -- to avoid a long, emotionally-draining court battle.

"It's always better to avoid a big, ugly, public trial," he said.

Chief Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations said there was no dispute about the speed Swearengin was traveling or that he was trying to get authorization to turn on his emergency lights and sirens as he rushed to respond to a report of a stolen vehicle. Kern County Sheriff's policy does not require such authorization.

But the county felt Jolley and Hiler were essentially operating the motorcycle that night -- from a legal standpoint -- and their decisions played a part in what took place.

"They were not pedestrians. They should have never been on that road that night," Nations said. "They were dressed all in black. There were no reflectors on the motorcycle. It was not street legal."

Both were also intoxicated, Nations said.

Hiler's blood alcohol content was .137 and Jolley's was .253,more than three times the legal limit to drive a car, Nations said.

But there was a significant risk to proceeding with a court trial, Nations said, and the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted to authorize its insurance company -- C.V. Starr & Co. -- to settle the case.

The initial demand of the plaintiffs was for $25 million, Nations said.

The settlement was announced Friday.

While settlement of the civil case brings financial closure to the families of Hiler and Jolley, the criminal case against Swearengin continues.

The day before the civil settlement was announced, Swearengin rejected a plea deal and a two-year jail sentence to fight in court the two charges of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence he faces.

Bakersfield criminal defense attorney Kyle Humphrey, who has no ties to the case, said the civil settlement could present complications to Swearengin's defense team.

They will "definitely" move to block the outcome of the civil trial from being brought up in the criminal courtroom, Humphrey said.

"The jury will never hear about it," he said. "The problem is that the community has heard of it."

He said people will look at the settlement and assume Swearengin is at fault because of the settlement without understanding it was reached after both sides calculated the risk of a jury trial.

During jury selection, Humphrey said, the defense will have to decide whether to ask potential jurors whether they have heard of the civil settlement.

But, he said, "how do you bring it up and not have people scurry off to find out why you brought it up?"

Jurors are instructed not to research a case. But some jurors ignore that direction, Humphrey said.

The $2.3 million county share of the settlement was built into this year's county budget said Nancy Lawson, assistant county administrative officer for Budget and Finance.

The county had earlier estimated it would spend $2.5 million on the settlement.

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