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Fresno car dealer to pay $950,000 after stolen Infiniti was in fatal crash

A Fresno police officer walks by Earnest Grant’s crashed car at Marks and North avenues southwest of Fresno after it was involved in a collision with a stolen car July 17, 2013.
A Fresno police officer walks by Earnest Grant’s crashed car at Marks and North avenues southwest of Fresno after it was involved in a collision with a stolen car July 17, 2013. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

A Fresno used car dealership accused of allowing an auto thief to steal a car that caused a deadly crash has agreed to pay $950,000 to the widow of a Fresno man killed in the collision three years ago.

The widow, Victoria Westbrooks, thanked her lawyer, Nicholas “Butch” Wagner, and told Judge Mark Snauffer she agreed with the settlement announced Tuesday in Fresno County Superior Court. It was the second day of a trial for the wrongful-death lawsuit.

Under the settlement, the defendants, My Auto Maxx and its affiliate, Auto Maxx, admit no wrongdoing in the death of Westbrooks’ husband, Earnest Grant, 55, who was killed July 17, 2013, when his car was struck by a stolen Infiniti driven by Walter Levon McDaniel.

The defendants’ lawyer, Gregory Mason, shook Westbrooks’ hand and wished her well.

“Personally, I found her to be a wonderful and caring lady and her husband to be a loving, hard-working and caring man,” Mason told a reporter. “I wish nothing but the best for her in the future.”

Personally, I found her to be a wonderful and caring lady and her husband to be a loving, hard-working and caring man.

Defense lawyer Gregory Mason said of Victoria Westbrooks

In the trial, Wagner laid out an unusual set of facts in his opening statements to the jury Thursday:

McDaniel had stolen two vehicles from My Auto Maxx at Clinton and Blackstone avenues before he went to the car lot again July 12, 2013, to steal the Infiniti. After filling out a credit application, McDaniel stole the car’s keys.

My Auto Maxx general manager Wally Salah Ali knew McDaniel had stolen the Infiniti, but did not report it to police until four days later. And when Ali made his report to police, he lied about when the car was stolen.

In addition, a Fresno police officer had warned My Auto Maxx employees to secure the Infiniti to make sure it wasn’t stolen. But the employees did little to prevent its theft, though they knew McDaniel had taken the keys.

Five days after the car was stolen, McDaniel led Fresno police on a high-speed chase in the Infiniti. McDaniel ran several stop signs before reaching the intersection of Marks and North avenues, where he slammed into Grant’s car, killing him instantly.

Police reports say McDaniel was going about 100 mph and had run six stops before crashing into Grant’s car. In addition to McDaniel, a 13-year-old boy and a woman who were with him survived the collision, Wagner said.

Wagner contended Ali and other employees at My Auto Maxx, which was sold after Grant was killed, and Auto Maxx, which is on Blackstone near Barstow Avenue, were negligent and that their inaction to prevent McDaniel from stealing the Infiniti played a substantial role in Grant’s death.

In defending the car dealer, Mason told the jury that blame should rest solely with McDaniel, 39, who is awaiting trial on a murder charge in connection with Grant’s death.

The killing of Earnest Grant, 55, of Fresno, was the subject of a grand jury investigation because Walter Levon McDaniel had been released from Fresno County Jail 11 days before the fatal crash.

The killing of Grant was the subject of a grand jury investigation because McDaniel had been released from Fresno County Jail 11 days before the fatal crash.

Court records say McDaniel had been wanted on a Madera County warrant issued in April 2013 for failing to appear in court on felony charges of driving a stolen car while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The car McDaniel was driving was a Nissan Altima stolen from My Auto Maxx. It was easy to steal, Wagner told the jury, because My Auto Maxx had left the keys in the car.

McDaniel drove the Altima for about a week. While intoxicated, he totaled the vehicle in a collision with a big rig in Madera on April 20, 2013, Wagner said.

Fresno police arrested McDaniel on June 27 after finding him driving a stolen van with a boy inside. The van also was stolen from My Auto Maxx.

On July 1, the Fresno County Sheriff's Office notified Madera County jail officials via a statewide system that they had six days to pick up McDaniel or he would be released from jail. When Madera County law enforcement didn’t pick him up July 6, McDaniel was released.

The grand jury concluded Madera County jail officials should have taken action to keep McDaniel locked up and recommended changes to how the county corrections office handles interagency communication.

After the second vehicle was stolen, Wagner argued that My Auto Maxx employees knew McDaniel was up to no good. In fact, Ali had passed around to employees a photo of McDaniel, telling them to be the lookout for him, Wagner told the jury.

Outside court Tuesday, Wagner said only Ali had testified before both sides agreed to settle the case. If the case had continued, Wagner said he planned to call police officers involved in the investigation of McDaniel.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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