$11M California Wrongful Death Settlement Reached With Families of Women Killed in Car Crash Allegedly Caused by Federal Immigration Agent

December 31, 1969

The families of Sandra Garcia, Maria Nieto, and Patricia Reyes will receive $11 million in their wrongful death lawsuit against the US government. The three women were killed in a deadly California car crash when the Dodge Caravan they were riding was struck by a vehicle driven by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent Cole Dotson as he ran a stop sign. At the time, the federal agent's car was going over 100 miles per hour. Also injured in the collision were the two children, ages 11 and 1, that were in the van.

The sirens or lights of Dotson's vehicle were not activated at the time of the collision even though he was working with a team that was pursuing a suspected methamphetamine smuggler. He was charged with vehicular manslaughter in all three deaths. Usually federal agents are not charged for conduct that occurred while doing their job. Dotson has pleaded not guilty and his case will go to trial.

According to court documents, prior to the deadly collision, the government agencies that were working together were having a difficult time communicating with one another. Poor coverage and malfunctioning radios reportedly played roles in this confusion. Also, because the agents were from different law enforcement agencies, they were using different radio frequencies, which forced them to depend on their cell phones to make calls and text message. It is not known whether Dotson was distracted driving at the time of the collision.

The families of the women brought their California wrongful death lawsuit under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which, under certain circumstances, lets citizens sue the federal government (Generally, the doctrine of sovereign immunity protects the government from such cases.)

To be able to file a wrongful death lawsuit under FTCA, plaintiffs have to submit notice of the claim within six months of the incident and prior to filing the actual civil complaint. Failure to do this, which gives the government time to respond, can result in the loss of your right to sue.

Also, even though federal agents, given the nature of their work, are also immune from certain civil actions, the way a complaint is filed can overcome this immunity. For example, in this particular California wrongful death case, the plaintiffs contended that the lawsuit wasn't about how Dotson did his job but about his negligent driving. (The California Highway Patrol issued a report blaming Dotson for the deadly collision.)

"Never assume that you cannot sue the government for damages," said Howard Law, PC Partner and Anaheim Wrongful Death Attorney Vincent Howard. "There may be reasons why you can and should that could allow you to obtain the recovery that you are owed."

Of the $11 million, $3.8 million will go to the Reyes family. The other two families will receive their compensation from the $7.2 million.

"Even when doing their jobs, law enforcement officers must still obey the rules of the road," said Anaheim Personal Injury Attorney Vincent Howard. "It doesn't matter whether they are in the middle of pursuing a suspect. If speeding is necessary to catch someone, the officers must still be mindful that they are sharing the road, alert others through lights and/or sirens that a pursuit is underway, and/or if necessary, risk losing the chase if this means avoiding causing a deadly collision."

Families settle for $11 million in fatal ICE crash, U-T San Diego, February 16, 2012

US to Pay $11 Million to Families of Women Killed by Immigration Agent, FoxNews, February 17, 2012

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Anaheim, California Injury Lawyer Vincent Howard represents clients in Orange County, San Bernardino County, Riverside County, and Los Angeles County, California.