Local News

Friday, Feb 28 2014 05:02 PM

County to pay $8.8 million to families of pedestrians fatally struck by deputy

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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 Anthony Ashley

    CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Daniel Hiler and his fiancee, Whittney Peaker, in a family photo. Peaker said she had known Hiler for most of her life.

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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer jkotowski@bakersfield.com

The families of two pedestrians struck and killed by a cruiser driven by a Kern County sheriff's deputy will receive $8.8 million in a settlement reached Friday with the Kern County Sheriff's Office and the county of Kern.

The settlement is believed to be the largest for an "automobile accident" case against the county, according to an attorney who represented some of the plaintiffs.

Daniel Hiler and Chrystal Jolley, 24 and 30, were struck and killed Dec. 16, 2011, by Deputy John Swearengin's patrol vehicle at the intersection of Norris Road and Diane Drive in Oildale.

The Hiler family will receive $4.8 million, the Jolley family $4 million.

David K. Cohn, attorney for Hiler's fiancee and two young sons, said the settlement brings a degree of closure for them, but they're still suffering.

"It doesn't bring Daniel back, the boys are obviously still without a father," Cohn said.

Jolley's family was represented by attorney Thomas Brill of the Law Offices of Young and Nichols. He could not be reached for comment.

The civil lawsuit against Swearengin said he acted recklessly and in conscious disregard of the public's safety by driving at an excessive speed through an area known to have high pedestrian traffic.

Cohn said anyone -- including law enforcement officers -- who drives almost twice the legal speed limit and hits and kills someone should be criminally charged. He said it's a credit to District Attorney Lisa Green and her office that the decision was made to prosecute Swearengin.

"Sometimes the public might see law enforcement as getting preferential treatment, and that's not the case here," Cohn said.

Neither County Counsel Theresa Goldner nor Chief Deputy County Counsel Mark Nations could immediately be reached for comment Friday evening.

The settlement comes a day after Swearengin, 36, rejected a plea deal in the criminal case that would have sent him to prison for two years in exchange for pleading no contest to the two counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence he's charged with. He faces up to seven years if convicted.

The California Highway Patrol has said Swearengin was driving in excess of 80 mph just before hitting Jolley and Hiler as they were crossing Norris Road at about 7:30 p.m. The two had been pushing a motorcycle south.

The posted speed limit in that area is 45 mph. Deputies have said Swearengin was responding to a call of a stolen vehicle when the crash occurred.

He was driving without his emergency lights or sirens activated. CHP reports say Swearengin told investigators he took his eyes off the road as he reached for his radio to ask permission to activate the car's lights and sirens, and a large drink cup was in the way.

He looked up and saw the motorcycle.

The deputy applied his brakes about a half second before impact, according to the reports. His speed was about 60 mph when he hit Hiler and Jolley.

The reports said neither Hiler nor Jolley were at fault in the crash because while the area where they were crossing was not a crosswalk, they were legally allowed to cross there because there were no adjacent crosswalks with traffic control signals.

Swearengin's trial is scheduled to begin March 10. He's been with the Sheriff's Office for more than seven years.

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