[Noozhawk’s note: This story has been modified to correct errors in the original version.]
Santa Barbara County officials, as well as those from the Sheriff’s Department, have agreed to pay a $4.8 million settlement to the family of a young man who was killed in a 2009 accident involving a wrong-way driver.
Goleta residents Marcos Arredondo, 18, and Macrina Ocampo, 58, were killed Nov. 8, 2009, after the vehicle Arredondo was driving was struck head-on by a car driven by Richard Rodriguez, then 20, of Tustin, on Highway 101 south of Storke Road in Goleta.
Rodriguez was later convicted of driving under the influence and traveling the wrong way on the freeway, sentenced to 13 years in prison and ordered to pay restitution to the victims’ families. In the backseat of Arredondo’s car were his two younger sisters, Yessika and Karina, who suffered permanent injuries in the crash.
The county and the Sheriff’s Department — and Deputy Jeremy Rogers —were named in a lawsuit alleging that the department was negligent in training its deputies on how to deal with wrong-way drivers, and that the lack of training led to the deaths of Arredondo and Ocampo.
A separate civil lawsuit was filed against Rodriguez.
According to the lawsuit filed against the county, Rogers responded to a report of a wrong-way driver, and merged slowly into the slow lane, directly in front of a car driven by Jose Arredondo, Marcos’ father, as well as another car trailing driven by Marcos.
The deputy failed to signal or activate his flashing lights or siren, and Jose Arredondo was forced to change lanes, which put Marcos directly into the path of Rodriguez, according to the suit.
The freeway is within the jurisdiction of the California Highway Patrol, which has its own protocols for dealing with wrong-way drivers.
After the Arredondos’ vehicles passed Rogers, the officer turned his lights and sirens on, and Jose Arredondo “assumed he was being pulled over,” Barry Cappello, one of the attorneys representing the family in the lawsuit, said in a statement sent out Monday. “He moved over to lane two just as Rodriguez’ car zoomed by, barely missing him. Rodriguez then slammed head on into the vehicle driven by Marcos.”
Rogers was dropped from the lawsuit due to his immunity as a law-enforcement officer early this year, and Thursday’s settlement was against the county and the Sheriff’s Department.
“Their parents witnessed it all,” Cappello said, adding that sheriff’s deputies aren’t trained to respond to wrong-way drivers on the freeway. “The sheriff’s actions were in violation of department policy and his negligent actions resulted in this tragedy.”
Arredondo’s family ”was just destroyed over this,” Cappello told Noozhawk last year. “They’ve got these two beautiful girls who are permanently injured for the rest of their lives. It’s amazing the family is even together after something like this.”
Sheriff Bill Brown denounced the press release sent from Cappello’s office in a statement of his own, which he sent to Noozhawk on Monday night.
“While Mr. Cappello blames this tragedy on the county and a sheriff’s deputy, the real cause of this heartbreaking criminal event was Richard Rodriguez, whose reckless behavior in using illegal drugs, drinking alcohol to excess, and then driving the wrong way on the freeway is the real cause of this tragedy,” Brown said. “The reason the county and the Sheriff’s Office were named in this lawsuit is that the county has the deep pockets and the drunken driver had no assets.”
Brown’s statement said the deputy driving on the ramp had been moving slowly to locate Rodriguez, and activated his lights as soon as he saw Rodriguez.
The sheriff’s deputy who witnessed this horrific accident immediately provided aid to the victims, he said, and also reinforced that Rodriguez had a blood-alcohol content of .22, almost three times the legal limit, in addition to cocaine and marijuana in his system.
Rodriguez had also been arrested the week before on drunken driving charges.
Brown also said that the deputy did not violate department policy, and that the settlement doesn’t admit wrongdoing on the part of the department or the county.
“The shame of Mr. Capello’s press release is that it places blame on the actions of a sheriff’s deputy who was attempting to protect the public instead of where it truly belongs — on a convicted felon who was so irresponsibly drunk that night that he thought he was in Orange County at the time of the crash,” Brown said.
Leila Noël, who also represented the family with Cappello, stated that if Rogers had not operated his vehicle in a negligent manner, “the accident would not have occurred.”
The statement said that the vast majority of the settlement would be used to pay for the lifetime of medical expenses for the Arredondo’s two daughters.