In May 2009, Berman & Riedel, LLP had the privilege of presenting a case at trial on behalf of the three children of 48-year-old Derek Ritter, who was tragically killed on January 25, 2006 while riding his motorcycle on his way to work. Derek Ritter was struck head-on by a large Dodge Ram truck that crossed a double-yellow line into his direct path of travel, and at a closing speed of 115 mph. According to the accident reconstruction expert that was called to testify at trial, Derek Ritter had time to perceive the accident but not react; the truck crossed into his path a mere two seconds before impact. When struck, his motorcycle exploded and he was thrown from the bike. The parties involved in the accident fled the scene, and were later arrested for their involvement.
Due to her failure to accept any responsibility for her role in causing the death of Derek Ritter, Berman & Riedel, LLP tried to case against the girlfriend of the driver involved in the accident, under most difficult legal claims of Negligent Entrustment and Wrongful Death. Evidence was presented at trial to demonstrate that it was Delynn Reed, as the girlfriend of the driver, Dean Ray Osuna, who made a grave error in judgment by giving the keys to her vehicle to her obviously impaired and exhausted boyfriend and encouraging him to drive.
In support of the difficult legal claims pursued against Delynn Reed, evidence was put on at trial showing that the accident happened at 5:13 a.m., on State Route 78, when Osuna, at the request of his girlfriend, Reed, were in the process of “moving” her belongings to her home in San Pasqual Valley. Defendant Reed, who gave Osuna the keys to her truck to drive, was driving directly in front of Osuna in “tandem” and actually witnessed the head-on collision in her rear-view mirror. Notwithstanding the major impact and the fact that Derek Ritter lay on the side of the road, they both fled the scene, Reed driving Osuna away and taking him to her uncle’s house where they remained until apprehended 12 hours later that day.
Prior to the accident, Reed and Osuna had been up all night, with her packing for the intended move and him at band practice. After Reed picked Osuna up at band practice at approximately 2:00 a.m., they returned home so she could finish packing whereupon they then set out on their intended 1 hour and 15 minute drive at approximately 4:30 a.m. Unfortunately, the evidence suggested that Osuna was impaired and exhibited signs of being unfit to drive before they left. Notwithstanding, Reed encouraged Osuna to drive, a decision that proved fatal.
The evidence presented at trial showed that both Reed and Osuna had been partying for three straight days together, using crystal methamphetamine and smoking marijuana, although they both denied using drugs within the 24-hours preceding the accident several times. At a minimum though, Osuna was known to be “very tired,” a fact that rang out over-and-over throughout the trial. As per the drug impairment, such was hard to prove, because they both fled from the scene of the accident, and were not apprehended until 5:00 p.m. later that day.
During trial, introduction of Osuna’s drug use was excluded based upon rulings that insufficient evidence existed to demonstrate exactly when the illicit drugs had been used. Despite a positive drug test taken at 7:00 p.m. later that day showed that Osuna had methamphetamine and marijuana in his system, the Court ruled such evidence would not be admitted for consideration by the jury because the test results failed to establish a nexus as to when it was used because: (1) Osuna told arresting CHP officers that he had smoked methamphetamine and marijuana after the accident, to calm his nerves, and (2) finding that there could be no link between the testing which were post 12 hours following the accident when the drug tests (including blood work) were taken. Nevertheless, certain evidence of the drug use came in at trial, through two officers from the California Highway Patrol that were called to testify and who spoke about incriminating admissions made by Reed and Osuna following their arrests.
In seeking to prove Reed’s knowledge of Osuna’s impairment and unfitness to drive before Reed handed the keys to her truck for Osuna to drive, Trial Attorney William M. Berman put on evidence that Osuna demonstrated obvious outward signs of impairment and also stated that he was fatigued before they set out on the trip, a statement both Reed and Osuna gave to the arresting officers in attempt to diffuse the drug use. Their claim was that the accident occurred because he was tired and he fell asleep at the wheel, and not because of any drug use. Despite such argument, Attorney Berman highlighted the fact that Osuna had told Reed that he was tired before Reed handed him the keys and encouraged him to drive, stating “we’ll make it.” There was also evidence put on during trial that 30 minutes into the drive, Osuna pulled over to again tell her he was very tired. Again, Reed encouraged him to continue, stating “we can make it.” The accident happened approximately 15 minutes later, after Reed and Osuna got back onto the road, whereupon Derek Ritter was struck head on in his lane of travel and then left for dead on the side of the road.
In defense of the case, counsel for Reed argued that Osuna was responsible for the accident, because he as the driver of the truck involved in the fatality accident made a conscious decision to get behind the wheel and drive. To counter the defense put on by Reed, Attorney Berman argued issues of Responsibility and Accountability, insisting that we as a society know better than to give the keys to a vehicle to someone who is obviously impaired or tired, thereby encouraging them to drive. Attorney Berman stressed that when someone gives the keys to a vehicle to someone who is obviously impaired or tired and encourages them to drive on our public roadways, they too are responsible for any harm that is caused.
In the end, the jury agreed and awarded total damages in the amount of $1,850,000, with a 40% finding of fault on Reed and 60% finding of fault against Osuna. Following the verdict, the case was featured by the local news and called a tremendous victory for society, setting an example that those who knowingly entrust their vehicles to someone who is unfit to drive can also be held responsible for any injuries that the impaired driver causes.
In speaking to the press afterwards, the Ritter children most eloquently stated, “This trial was not about the money. It was about setting an example for everyone that life is precious and therefore those who fail to act responsibly and knowingly give their keys to an impaired driver and allow them to get behind the wheel of a vehicle and drive will also be held accountable.” In addressing comments to Reed and Osuna through the press, 21-year-old Kara Ritter stated that she hoped the verdict sent a message that “Everybody in society has a role to be responsible, and if you make an irresponsible decision you need to be held accountable; I hope you make the decision to change and in the future, I hope you don’t make that decision again. You need to stop yourself, and you need to prevent this pain from filtering through to any other person’s family.”
Although the case was tried to jury by Berman & Riedel, LLP’s Managing Partner William M. Berman, the case was worked up by the team of associate attorneys at the firm. Indeed, all of the attorneys and support staff with the firm prepared the case for presentation at trial, working tirelessly to ensure that the clients’ case was presented with detailed clarity. While no amount of money will bring back Derek Ritter, the Ritter children are pleased knowing that both Reed and Osuna have held responsible for their roles in causing the death of their father, whom they each during trial described to be their best friend.