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Most civil claims settled in DWI deaths

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The family of two teenage girls from the Navajo reservation who were killed in a 2010 Santa Fe wreck caused by a repeat DWI violator has settled its civil claims against many of those the family sued after the fatal crash.

According to court documents, the family of Del Lynn Peshlakai, 19, and her sister Deshauna, 17, of Naschitti, has reached a settlement with the operators of the Blue Corn Cafe, where drunken-driver James Ruiz was served alcohol before he rammed a truck into the rear of the Peshlakai family’s car on Cerrillos Road.

The sisters were killed and their parents were injured. The Peshlakais were in Santa Fe for a basketball tournament.

The family also has accepted insurance coverage available to Ruiz and his drinking buddy Gilbert Mendoza – who gave Ruiz the keys to the truck Ruiz was driving when he plowed into the Peshlakai’s car – to settle claims against them.

The documents available in the Peshlakais’ wrongful death suit do not disclose the dollar amounts of the settlements with the Blue Corn Cafe and its parent companies, nor the insurance payouts for Ruiz or Mendoza.

Despite the settlements, the lawsuit remains alive. The operators of the Applebee’s Neighborhood Bar and Grill at 4246 Cerrillos – where Ruiz himself says he first got drunk before heading to the nearby Blue Corn Cafe with Mendoza to continue drinking – have not reached any agreement with the Peshlakais.

Last week, Applebee’s International Inc. and an associated corporation moved the case from state District Court to federal court. That provoked a swift response from the Peshlakais’ attorneys, who have filed an “emergency motion” asking a federal judge to send the case back to state District Court Judge Stephen Pfeffer in Santa Fe.

The move to federal court is “a thinly veiled attempt to delay the state court proceedings” where a trial is scheduled for November and where the plaintiffs are seeking sanctions against Applebee’s over pre-trial discovery issues, the Peshlakai lawyers maintain.

Applebee’s, in its notice of removal to federal court last Wednesday, maintained that the Peshlakai plaintiffs had the insurance policy settlement offer from Mendoza and Ruiz on the table for some time before accepting it, and delayed removing Mendoza and Ruiz from the case until Aug. 1 as a stalling tactic to keep Applebee’s from meeting a deadline for taking the case to federal court.

It wasn’t until all the other defendants had settled – Blue Corn Cafe and the Peshlakai plaintiffs reached their deal in 2011 – that the necessary “diversity” among the defendants was created and allowed Applebee’s to remove the case to federal court, the filing by Applebee’s attorneys says.

Peshlakai attorney Zackeree Kelin of Albuquerque, in his filing, says Applebee’s presented no evidence to back up its claims that Mendoza and Ruiz were kept in the suit as a matter of “bad faith.”

Federal District Judge James O. Browning held a hearing on the matter Friday. Browning heard from the attorneys and scheduled another hearing for Aug. 27.

Ruiz’s lawsuit

Ruiz, a repeat drunken driver who was out on bond on his fifth DWI arrest when he caused the crash that killed the Peshlakai sisters, is serving a 40-year prison sentence after entering a guilty plea in 2011.

In March, he filed from prison his own lawsuit in the case, seeking monetary damages from the Blue Corn Cafe and Applebee’s for allegedly overserving him, and also from Mendoza for giving him the truck keys and letting him drive the night of the crash.

That case is still pending. At least some defendants have been dismissed from the litigation by a judge.

Santa Fe Dining, the Blue Corn Cafe’s parent company that operates several Santa Fe restaurants, changed its alcohol serving rules after the Ruiz crash, imposing new limits on customers.

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