It was the second time in less than three years that a Kern County sheriff’s deputy crashed into and killed innocent bystanders in Oildale while driving in excess of 80 mph toward a call for assistance.
A lawsuit filed Tuesday against the county of Kern and Deputy Nicholas John Clerico is asking for monetary damages for the family of Nancy Joyce Garrett, who died last September when Clerico ran a red light doing 85 mph before slamming into Garrett’s car.
The family is also asking for changes within the sheriff’s department in how deputies are trained to drive the streets of Oildale, Bakersfield and other communities across the county.
“This case is in the public interest,” the lawsuit states. It also refers directly to similarities between this case and that of Deputy John Swearengin, who struck and killed two people as they walked across an Oildale street in 2011.
That case resulted in a combined $8.8 million settlement to the families of the deceased.
The filing of this latest lawsuit comes just days after the release of the California Highway Patrol's investigative report, which recommended that a vehicular manslaughter charge be filed against Clerico, who was 25 at the time of the accident.
The report found Clerico at fault because he entered a “solid red light” while traveling at a high rate of speed south on North Chester Avenue as it intersected with West China Grade Loop. His vehicle's lights and siren were activated, but the speed at which he was driving minimized their effectiveness, the report said.
Garrett, the driver of the other vehicle, was traveling east on West China Grade Loop at 43 mph when Clerico's patrol vehicle struck her on the driver's side.
She died from multiple blunt force trauma. Clerico, who was not wearing a seat belt, suffered moderate injuries in the 1:45 a.m. crash.
The deputy was responding to another deputy's call for assistance with a fight at the Long Branch Saloon in Oildale when the collision occurred.
“A reasonable person would have known that entering an intersection against a red traffic signal, at 85 mph, and without giving adequate warning to approaching traffic would create a danger to human life,“ the report states.
The report notes Garrett did not possess a valid driver’s license.
The Fresno-based Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team, which often handles crash investigations involving law enforcement, released its findings Thursday morning.
A copy of the investigation has been forwarded to the Kern County District Attorney's office for review and determination of whether Clerico's negligence rises to a felony charge of gross vehicular manslaughter or misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter.
Garrett’s two grown children, Mark McGowan and Deborah Blanco, are named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. They are represented by Matthew C. Clark and Neil K. Gehlawat, of Chain | Cohn | Stiles, a Bakersfield firm that also represented one of the parties in the Swearengin case.
According to the lawsuit, “Clerico used excessive and unreasonable force ... when he entered the intersection at unreasonably high speed against a red light.”
The lawsuit claims that “the conduct of defendant Clerico was willful, wanton, malicious, and done with reckless disregard for the rights and safety of (Garrett), and therefore warrants the imposition of exemplary and punitive damages.”
In turning its attention to the county of Kern and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office, the lawsuit is highly critical.
The county’s policies, the lawsuit states, “were not adequate to train its deputies to handle the usual and recurring situations with which they must deal, including ... driving at excessive speeds, pre-clearing intersections and responding Code 3.
”Defendant (Kern) county, the lawsuit continues, “was deliberately indifferent to the obvious consequences of its failure to train its deputies adequately.“
Mark Nations, an attorney with long experience at the Kern County Counsel’s office, said Tuesday he hadn’t had an opportunity to read the lawsuit, but he noted that he is familiar with both the Swearengin case and the Garrett case.
”The deputy was proceeding Code 3 with lights and sirens as required,“ Nations said.
”He was doing his duty, going to assist a fellow officer.“
As with any lawsuit involving a county law enforcement officer, the case will be given serious consideration and attention by attorneys in the county counsel’s office, he said.