The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday signed off on a $6.5-million settlement for a couple who sued the county and others after their teenage son was killed during a civilian car chase, citing "gross negligence" on the part of a 911 operator.
The payout will go to Julie Esphorst and Jesse Esphorst Sr., the parents of 16-year-old Jesse Esphorst Jr. The parents separately filed wrongful death lawsuits against the county, the city of Torrance, the state Department of Transportation and others.
Not listed among the codefendants but mentioned in the suit is the 911 dispatcher, Jessica Lynn Lindsay, a Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy who the parents say was negligent in the incident that led to the teen's death five years ago.
On March 7, 2017, Tung Ming, from Rancho Palos Verdes, was driving northbound on Crenshaw Boulevard when Darryl Leander Hicks, of Los Angeles, made an illegal U-turn and struck Ming's vehicle. Hicks drove off with Ming in pursuit.
As Ming followed Hicks, he called 911 to report the incident. According to the lawsuits, Lindsay told Ming to get the license plate number of the car that had struck him. Because she repeatedly instructed him to get the fleeing vehicle's plate number, Ming said in a deposition, he thought she was commanding him to drive faster.
Jesse and his father were returning from a baseball game when their van was struck — first by Hicks' vehicle and then by Ming's — as it turned on a green light at the intersection of Crenshaw Boulevard and Crest Road in Torrance.
Both Jesse and his father were seriously hurt. Jesse died of his injuries that night at a hospital.
Jesse was a sophomore at South Torrance High School, a talented baseball player who had hit a home run just hours before the crash to help his varsity team clinch a win. He was heading home with his father to attend a family birthday party, according to the Daily Breeze.
Attorney John Taylor represents Jesse's mother. He said that, as a sworn peace officer, Lindsay knew the dangers of vehicle pursuits. But he said in an interview that Lindsay apparently got so caught up in the chase that she never asked Ming how fast he was going.
“The public places so much trust in 911 operators for assistance and advice, and this demonstrates the heavy responsibility that the operator has, but it’s truly just a failure to follow common sense,” Taylor said. “She kind of was telling Ming to engage in a law enforcement function rather than stopping the chase.”
Taylor said it appeared that one of the cars that slammed into the Esphorsts' van was traveling at more than 80 mph, in a 45 mph zone.
Hicks and Ming have since been convicted of criminal charges. Ming, who stayed at the scene after the crash, was sentenced to more than two years in state prison for gross vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving. Hicks was sentenced to an 11-year prison term. In Ming's case, Superior Court Judge Amy Carter handed down a more lenient sentence due to his lack of a criminal history.
Both men appealed; a state court upheld the convictions but ruled that Hicks should be resentenced.
The payout was recommended by the L.A. County Claims Board, which reviews all proposed settlements of more than $100,000 and refers them to the Board of Supervisors for disposition.
Lawyers for the county tried to get the cases dismissed by filing a motion for summary judgment, arguing that Lindsay enjoyed immunity from civil liability as a law enforcement officer acting within the scope of her duties.
In a response, Garo Mardirossian, the attorney for Esphorst Sr., cited case law suggesting that immunity applied "unless the victim's damages are attributable to an act or omission 'performed in a grossly negligent manner.' "
Christina Denning, a San Diego defense attorney who has represented people whose relatives were killed in police pursuits, explained, “In other words, the plaintiffs convinced the judge that the dispatcher's conduct was an extreme departure from ordinary police practices."
The dispatcher, Mardirossian said in an interview, "should've said, 'Whatever you do, don't chase.' "
The Esphorsts suffered another tragedy two years after the accident that took Jesse's life; their son Cody died at 17 of congenital heart disease, Mardirossian said.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.