As a Malibu jury deliberated last week over a case brought by the parents of a 2-year-old boy hit and killed by an L.A. County Lifeguard truck, lawyers for the county and the parents settled the case for an undisclosed amount. Even without a jury verdict, the case may force the county to change its policy on the use of lifeguard trucks on county beaches.
Ricardo and Janeth Aban brought their wrongful death case against the county over the loss of their son, Kevin, who was struck and killed by a lifeguard truck as he fed a group of seagulls on the dry sand at Santa Monica Beach late on a summer afternoon two years ago.
The toddler was between 30 and 50 feet from where his mother and other family members sat when he was hit by the truck, driven by Lt. Conrad Liberty, a 36-year veteran lifeguard. Mrs. Aban’s back was turned at the time of the accident.
Liberty, who was responding to a call about a dog on the beach, did not see Kevin playing on the sand, and, as Liberty testified at the trial, he did not see any beach patrons as he drove toward the Santa Monica Pier that afternoon.
“It was so empty, you could, proverbially, shoot a cannonball down the beach,” Liberty said in his testimony.
The county argued that Liberty was not negligent in the accident because the toddler ran from outside Liberty’s peripheral vision into the path of the truck.
The plaintiffs argued that the county should have posted signs warning beach visitors that lifeguard trucks drive on the beach, because the Abans, who were infrequent beachgoers, did not know they did. They also said that the county should have required Liberty to send out warning signals as he drove down the beach.
But because of a pretrial ruling by Superior Court Judge James A. Albrecht, the jurors could find the county liable for the accident only if they first found that Liberty was negligent at the time of the accident.
After a day and a half of deliberations, Holly Muir, a juror on the case, said the jury was evenly divided over the issue of whether Liberty was negligent.
“Even if a case could be made that he was negligent, it was clear that so much more was going on, like the policy allowing the trucks on the beach,” she said in an interview after the case was settled.
During deliberations, the jurors asked the judge whether they could first find the county negligent and, from there, find Liberty negligent only because he was an employee of the county. That question apparently prompted the county and the Abans to settle the case, rather than risk an unfavorable jury verdict.
After the settlement was reached, Albrecht told the jurors he understood if they were frustrated.
“I apologize if you folks feel a sense of loss — or waste,” he told the jurors. “It has not been a waste.”
He said the parties were unable to settle before trial, and the jury deliberations really pushed the settlement. As is typical with cases settled by the county, Albrecht ordered the parties not to disclose the amount of the settlement until the county claims board reviews the terms and makes that information public in approximately four weeks. In prior settlement negotiations, the county had offered $450,000, while the Abans were seeking $3 million.
In his pretrial ruling, Albrecht ruled that the county could not be liable for the accident independent of the behavior of its employee, because the county was not on notice that the lifeguard trucks were so inherently dangerous that it should have known of the hazards the trucks posed.
But the county’s own witness in the case, Scott Hickman, an accident reconstruction specialist, testified that the height of the truck, the frame around the cabin’s window and the rear-view mirror all created a permanent blind spot for the driver of the vehicle.
That testimony may now have put the county on notice that the lifeguard trucks are inherently dangerous, and the county, in response, may seek to protect itself in future lawsuits by requiring lifeguards to sound a warning from trucks as they move down the beach. Currently, lifeguards are required to sound a siren only during an emergency call.
Muir, the juror, said she would like to see a change in county policy, preferably the removal of the trucks from the beach altogether, except in emergencies.
“I had to sit and look at that mom and dad, and hear their grief, and I kept thinking, somebody else could go through this again in 10 weeks or five years or sometime,” she said. “When will it happen again?”