LACoFD captain's family awarded $2.7M in lawsuit over fatal off-duty crash

A jury found that Michael Shepard and Caltrans were equally at fault in a 2019 collision between his Jeep and a dump truck


Nathan Solis
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — The family of a Los Angeles County Fire Department captain was awarded $2.7 million last week by a jury that found both the late firefighter and Caltrans were equally at fault in a 2019 collision between his Jeep and a dump truck.

On Jan. 23, 2019, Capt. Michael Shepard, 63, was off-duty when his Jeep hit the back of the truck around 11 a.m. on the 14 Freeway in Santa Clarita. He died that day, according to a lawsuit his family filed in September 2019.

In court documents, the state of California argued Shepard caused the collision when he passed a Caltrans vehicle that was part of a sweeping operation on the freeway and did not check to see whether it was clear when he merged lanes.

Several vehicles were involved in the sweeping operation in what was described in court documents as a "moving closure" on the freeway. The vehicles kept some distance from one another because they made frequent stops, according to the state's defense. The state also argued that Shepard was traveling at a high speed but did not specify what that speed was when he rear-ended the dump truck.

Shepard's family said a Caltrans truck driver did not put on his flashing lights when he stopped on the left shoulder and carpool lane to clear debris, according to their complaint. Shepard's daughter, Conni Billes; his widow, Catherine Shepard, and their son, Clint Shepard, sued the state, the California Department of Transportation, Caltrans driver Pedro Gonzalez Beltran and Herc Rentals Inc.

According to court records, Shepard's family members declined a $1.5-million settlement offer after they filed their lawsuit.

The family's attorney, Tal Rubin, said the L.A. County Superior Court jury awarded the family damages for loss of love and companionship along with the stipulated amount of lost income, which brought the total to $5.4 million. But the verdict was cut in half, to $2.7 million, because the jury found Shepard was also at fault in the fatal collision.

"Although Mr. Shepard struck the Caltrans truck from behind, the jury found that Caltrans failed to follow several safety guidelines listed within the Caltrans maintenance manuals," Rubin said in a statement. "Most notably, the Caltrans truck involved in the crash did not have rotating amber lights or any other identifying markings, and the truck was also too far out in the fast lane in front of the convoy, when it was supposed to be in a tighter formation."

Those factors contributed to the jury's decision to find the transportation agency 50% responsible for the crash, Rubin said.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

©2022 Los Angeles Times

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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