The California Department of Transportation agreed Wednesday to settle a wrongful death lawsuit by paying $850,000 to the parents of 24-year-old Regan Johnson, who was killed in July 2012 by a drunken driver while working on a nighttime paving project on busy Highway 99 in Fresno.
The settlement ends a tragic story of a Kingsburg High and Fresno State graduate described as an All-American girl whose dream was to work with her mother at the family business – the Big Creek General Store – below Huntington Lake in eastern Fresno County.
After Johnson’s death, her parents, Bill and Malan Johnson, sued Caltrans in Fresno County Superior Court for negligence and failure to provide a safe work area for their daughter, who was killed while moving traffic cones on a dark area of the highway.
In court Wednesday, Bill Johnson and his tearful wife reluctantly accepted the settlement.
“Regan Johnson was a wonderful young woman,” McQuillan told Judge Mark Snauffer.
But it is Caltrans’ contention that the drunken driver, Alyssa Marie Villanueva, was solely responsible for her death, McQuillan said.
In the end, Caltrans believes it is in its best interest to settle the case, he said.
Her young life ended so needlessly.
Fresno attorney Stephen Cornwell, who represents Regan Johnson’s family
Cornwell had a different take. He said if the case had gone to trial, he would have focused on Caltrans’ alleged negligence and failure to provide a safe work area for Johnson. But there also were risks in going to trial, Cornwell said, noting that the jury would have to decide the percentage of fault attributed to the drunken driver, to Windsor Fuel Co., which hired Johnson, and to Caltrans.
“Her young life ended so needlessly,” Cornwell said, adding that Caltrans could have prevented Johnson’s death because an investigation revealed that a supervisor had seen her working alone in the dark but did nothing to stop the project. Cornwell also said Johnson had no training to do nighttime construction work.
“The freeway is full of intoxicated drivers at 2 a.m. when this happened,” Cornwell said. “She should have been protected by a truck-mounted attenuator (crash cushion) so … the driver hits the truck, not her. Or she shouldn’t have been out there in the first place. She is smart, but no one trained her so she would know the hazards.”
Cornwell said Johnson, who graduated summa cum laude from Fresno State and had a teaching credential, had worked for Sacramento-based Windsor Fuel Co. during the summer in the past, but never at night. He said Johnson was killed on the second night of the job.
Authorities say Johnson was moving traffic cones on northbound 99, north of the Clinton Avenue overpass when she was struck by a car driven by Villanueva around 2:10 a.m. July 11, 2012. Johnson was wearing a yellow shirt, a yellow and orange safety vest with reflective material, and yellow and orange safety pants with reflective material. A co-worker said Johnson also had a blinking light on her helmet and carried a lit flashlight. She died at the scene.
In May 2014, Villanueva, now 30, was sentenced to 17 years and four months in prison after pleading guilty to vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, leaving the scene of a crime and drunken driving causing bodily death to Johnson.
There were risks in going to trial: The jury would have to decide percentage of fault attributed to the drunken driver, to Windsor Fuel Co., which hired Johnson, and to Caltrans.
The parents’ lawsuit and a California Highway Patrol report give details about the fatal collision.
Johnson’s parents contend Caltrans had authority and control over the highway and provided engineers for the paving project. The engineers had “ultimate authority as to the manner of performance of the work and safety to protect the contractor’s employees and the motoring public,” the lawsuit says.
A CHP report says the fast and middle lanes of northbound 99 were closed for the paving project. The work was being done at night to minimize the impact to the motoring public, the lawsuit says.
Caltrans employees were on site, working on the paving project. Two CHP officers were assigned to provide traffic safety. Johnson was assigned to the traffic control team.
Before the collision, Johnson was moving traffic cones so traffic would not interfere with the paving crew that was working on the middle lane, the CHP report says.
At the time of her death, Johnson was walking ahead of the heavy equipment and moving cones to provide a wider path for the paving machine, “following the express directions of both Caltrans and Windsor Fuel,” the lawsuit says.
Villanueva, driving a 2007 Nissan Altima, “failed to observe the posted warning signs, flashing arrow signs, and traffic cones” and moved her vehicle from the slow lane, which was open for northbound traffic, into the construction area, the CHP report said. Villanueva failed to see Johnson, and the right front side of her car struck Johnson, the report says. The impact caused Johnson to be thrown onto the east shoulder of the highway.
Villanueva later admitted to drinking seven beers prior to the collision. She also was driving on a suspended license and was on probation for a prior drunken driving conviction, the CHP report says.
Moments before Regan Johnson died, the lawsuit says, a Caltrans inspector saw her working alone in the dark.
Moments before Johnson was killed, the lawsuit says, a Caltrans inspector who was supervising the project “drove past her and saw her by herself on the road.” The inspector noted “that she was further ahead of the vehicles than she should be for her safety,” the lawsuit says.
But instead of removing Johnson from the road and returning her to a safe area, the inspector just waved to Johnson, the lawsuit says.
In addition, Johnson was working in an area where the permanent highway lighting was out of order. The paving crew had five portable light towers, but none had been brought to the location where Johnson was working, the lawsuit says.
Cornwell said Caltrans required a truck-mounted crash cushion when traffic cones are placed on the roadway or removed from it. But Johnson wasn’t protected by one when she was moving the cones, he said.
The Caltrans inspector also saw Johnson working in an area with inadequate lighting, but he failed to address the lighting deficiency or take steps to remove Johnson from the roadway, the lawsuit says. “At that point, he had the authority to stop the project, and regroup to make sure everyone was safe, but he didn’t,” Cornwell said.
Cornwell said Caltrans and Windsor Fuel also failed to train Johnson. Caltrans’ safety manual also specifically states that when working at night, extra precautions should be taken to protect workers from moving traffic. The safety manual recommends using guardrails and vehicles as barriers and deploying a lookout to monitor errant motorists. But the manual’s recommendations were ignored, he said.
To prevent other nighttime highway workers from getting hurt or killed, Cornwell said Caltrans should implement a certification program so workers understand the potential hazards.
“The contract required that the contractor have a person working who is certified in water pollution,” Cornwell told the judge. “But no certification for nighttime construction is required by the state.”