Thursday, February 22, 2007
Sheriff's Dept. Ruled Culpable in Accident
By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer
The Bernalillo County Sheriff's Department shares blame for a fatal crash on the West Side because it didn't enforce traffic laws, even when law enforcement officers were among the violators, a judge has ruled.
Videotapes from a wrongful death trial last month showed police, sheriff's and corrections vehicles continually running a stop sign at the intersection of Speedway and Shelly Road NW, which is near the Metropolitan Detention Center.
District Judge Linda Vanzi said in a ruling filed this week that the sheriff's department "has still never written a traffic citation to any deputy, law enforcement or corrections officer in an official vehicle" despite evidence of speeding and running stop signs.
The intersection is where Jason Wachocki, a 22-year-old safety crew worker at Sandia Motor Speedway, was killed by a detention center employee racing to work at an estimated 75 to 80 mph, almost twice the speed limit in August 2004. Wachocki's family sued the city and the county, which jointly operated the jail at the time. The family settled with the driver's insurance company before trial.
Vanzi apportioned negligence at 30 percent to the sheriff's department and 70 percent to the driver, Willie Hiley, and set damages at $3.7 million for loss of life.
That means the county would be liable for $1.1 million in damages but for a $400,000 cap under the New Mexico Tort Claims Act a cap the family intends to challenge as unconstitutional, according to attorney Randi McGinn.
Sheriff Darren White said he disagreed with the findings and believes Vanzi's ruling "sets a bad precedent."
"I've asked the county to consider an appeal," he said. County Attorney Jeff Landers did not return a call about the case.
McGinn said the family will seek double its $14,826 in costs in the case under a rule that permits the prevailing party such a recovery if it offered to settle for less than the judgment amount.
In this case, the family offered to settle for $150,000 plus the county's agreement to install an electronic speed limit sign on Shelly Road and to provide unannounced law enforcement coverage on the road twice a month for two years.
The county refused the offer, McGinn said.
White said Wednesday he was not aware of the family's offer.
"I know there were some negotiations back and forth, but I was not there," he said. "I've never seen it."
McGinn said the family was seeking change.
"When someone's child is killed, it is never just about the money," McGinn said. "All along, the most important thing for the Wachocki family has been trying to get the sheriff's department to enforce the traffic laws on the roadways."