Family of Late Fire Captain Awarded $2.5M in Freeway Death

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SANTA MONICA - Relatives of a Los Angeles County Fire Department captain killed in 2019 when his Jeep crashed into the back of a stopped Caltrans dump truck were awarded $5 million by a jury that also found the state and the captain were equally at fault in the accident, reducing the award to $2.5 million.  

Capt. Michael Shepard, a 63-year-old Agua Dulce resident, died at a hospital the day of the Jan. 23, 2019, accident, which occurred at about 11:15 a.m. on the northbound Antelope Valley (14) Freeway in Santa Clarita, just south of Sand Canyon Road. According to a California Highway Patrol accident report, the Caltrans vehicle -- a GMC 3500 with a dump truck bed that was part of a sweeper operation -- was traveling in the northbound center median when it was rear-ended by Shepard's Jeep.  

A Santa Monica Superior Court jury that heard trial of the family's case reached its verdicts Thursday after only a few hours of deliberations. The panel's $5 million award was based on the family's loss of Shepard's love and companionship and their decision to split fault between the fire captain and the state included a finding that Shepard's negligence was a ``substantial factor'' in causing his death.  

The plaintiffs in the Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit filed in September 2019 are his widow, Catherine Shepard; their son, Clint Shepard; and their daughter, Conni Billes.  

The plaintiffs alleged Pedro Gonzalez Beltran's Caltrans truck did not have flashing or rotating amber lights and that there was too much distance between his truck and the vehicle behind it, making it more difficult to know that Beltran's truck was part of the sweeping detail. But attorneys representing the state of California, Gonzalez Beltran and Herc Rentals Inc. argued Shepard caused the accident, saying he was not traveling at a ``reasonable speed.''  

Instead of slowing down and making sure that he had passed all the vehicles involved in the sweeping operation, Shepard instead tried to pass another vehicle and crashed into the back of the dump truck, according to the defense lawyers' trial brief.  

Caltrans was conducting a sweeping operation with seven vehicles on the day of the incident, including one CHP vehicle, that required the ``moving closure'' of the left shoulder and the HOV lane of the freeway. Beltran was driving partially in the median shoulder and partially in the HOV lane when he stopped to remove debris from the center divider, the defense trial brief stated.  

Caltrans employees testified in depositions that vehicles in a sweeping convoy must keep a safe distance between each other because even though they are driving at a slow speed, the dump trucks must stop often to pick up litter and debris.  

``As such, the larger vehicles behind Beltran ... had to maintain a reasonable distance in order to be able to stop accordingly,'' the defense lawyers' trial brief stated.  

Although the plaintiffs said Caltrans maintenance and safety manuals show Beltran's truck should have had flashing or rotating amber lights and a lesser distance between his vehicle and the Caltrans truck behind it, the defense attorneys stated in their trial brief that the manuals are only a guide and ``cannot be used as a 26 presumption to negligence nor do the manuals establish a standard of care.''

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