Jury finds Fresno County sheriff’s deputy negligent in pedestrian’s death

A jury on Tuesday found Fresno County sheriff’s Deputy Kurt Rossi negligent for driving more than 90 mph when he ran over over a pedestrian on a dark, rural highway three years ago.

The Fresno County Superior Court panel of seven women and five men also found the pedestrian, Kristle Clowers, negligent in her death, so her two daughters will receive only 49% of the $650,000 in damages.

Both sides agreed that Clowers, 25, of Kerman was walking barefoot on Highway 145 and under the influence of methamphetamine when she was killed on the night of June 11, 2012.

What was in dispute was whether Rossi was liable for Clowers’ death since she was walking in the middle of the northbound lane wearing only only a dark tank top and denim shorts.

The jury said yes, voting unanimously that Rossi was negligent, said Los Angeles attorney David Lira, who represented Haley Clowers, 13, and Julianna Clowers, 10.

“It’s a huge victory, not only for my clients, but for the community,” said Lira, who called the jury “brave” for holding Rossi accountable.

“This sends a message that no one is above the law,” Lira said. “Even if you wear a badge, you have to follows the rules of the road.”

The collision happened about 11 p.m. on Highway 145 near El Dorado Avenue, about five miles east of Interstate 5. Testimony revealed that Rossi was not responding to an emergency call when he hit Clowers. He said he was headed to Five Points to look for traffic offenders.

The CHP said Clowers was walking on the northbound lane of the highway, which is also known as Fresno-Coalinga Road, when Rossi’s northbound patrol car struck her in the back of the legs. She hit the hood of the patrol car and went airborne. She suffered a broken neck, fractured skull and a brain injury, Lira told the jury. She died at the scene.

The CHP ruled Clowers’ death was an accident because she was walking on the highway. Rossi was never given a ticket for speeding or charged with vehicular manslaughter. He still works for the Sheriff's Office.

Lira said the case was difficult because Clowers also was walking on the wrong side of the road. Pedestrians are suppose to walk facing traffic.

In preparing his case, he was assisted by Los Angeles attorney Nicole DeVanon and Monterey attorney Allison Porter.

During the trial, Lira contended that Rossi could have avoided Clowers if he had drove the posted 55 mph speed limit.

He also said Clowers was known as a walker. Sheriff's deputies would often see her walking on county roads and give her a ride home, Lira told the jury.

But Fresno attorney James Weakley, who defended Rossi, said it wouldn’t have mattered what speed Rossi was driving because he didn’t see her.

“It was pitch black on a dark country road,” Weakley told the jury.

Weakley said Clowers had toxic levels of methamphetamine in body and was oblivious to the traffic. She walked with her head down, hair in her face, and never acknowledged cars were near her.

On the night of the collision, Clowers had been with her boyfriend and another man at a Motel 6 near Highway 198 and Interstate 5. For an unknown reason, she decided to walk toward Kerman more than 30 miles away, Weakley said.

Lira, however, said Clowers had a “therapeutic” level of methamphetamine in her body — 296 nanograms per milliliter — to help her cope with her attention deficit disorder.

He said Rossi should be held accountable because he has been with the Sheriff's Office more than 19 years and was familiar with the highway.

To bolster his case, Lira said two motorists saw Clowers walking that night. One of them was going 60 to 65 mph and safely drove around Clowers. The other motorist, who was headed in the opposite direction, said Clowers was walking on the edge of the road.

Lira was seeking $5 million in damages.

With Sheriff Margaret Mims and about a dozen uniformed deputies in the courtroom, Weakley told the jury in closing arguments Monday that he too thought Rossi was negligent. But he told the jury that if it was going to award damages, $100,000 should be given to each daughter so they could attend Fresno State in the future.

After the verdict was announced, Lira said neither Mims nor anyone on her staff has ever apologized to Clowers’ family. He also said he respects the jury’s award of damages, but thought it low for the loss of a human life. (Because Clowers also was at fault, her two daughters will receive $318,500 in damages).

Weakley, however, said Rossi has always admitted to speeding and nearly cried on the stand when describing the accident.

“He knows he is not above the law,” Weakley said. “But deputies have to drive fast because of the large area they cover.”

Weakley also claimed a partial victory. Prior to trial, Fresno County offered $500,001 to settle the case, but Lira declined. Because the offer was in writing, Weakley said Fresno County may be able to recoup some of its court costs.

Pablo Lopez: (559) 441-6434, @beecourts