Lawyer: Williams verdict leaves county vulnerable
By Kim Smith
LAS VEGAS SUN
The guilty verdict in the Jessica Williams case Friday may have damaged Clark County’s attempts to get out of a lawsuit filed by the victims’ families.
One of the families’ attorneys said Friday that the jury’s finding that Williams was not impaired could hurt the county, which has asked to be removed from the lawsuit.
Williams, 21, was convicted Friday morning of driving under the influence of a prohibited substance in the March 19 accident that took the lives of Jennifer Booth, Malena Stoltzfus, Rebeccah Glicken, Anthony Smith, Scott Garner Jr. and Alberto Puig.
She was convicted under a new law that sets 2 nanograms of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, as the standard for driving under the influence of that substance.
Williams faces up to 120 years in prison when she is sentenced on March 30.
The teenagers, who were between 14 and 16, were picking up trash in the median of Interstate 15 north of Las Vegas when Williams’ van drifted off the road at 75 mph and struck and killed them.
Each of the teens had committed a petty crime and were performing community service on the day of their deaths.
Their parents have filed a class-action suit against Clark County and Republic Services of Southern Nevada, which funded the program, alleging they violated federal, state and local standards for crews on highways.
According to the lawsuit, which was filed in August, Clark County failed to train the teenagers and provide barricades and cones. Nor did the county inform the teenagers’ parents about where the teens would be performing their community service work.
The date of the trial has not been set.
Garner family attorney Tom Christensen said Friday that county officials have filed a motion asking U.S. District Judge Kent Dawson to remove them from the lawsuit.
“One of their arguments is that Jessica Williams’ culpability is of such a high degree that it absolves them of their liability, if any,” Christensen said.
However, the county’s argument may have been damaged slightly by the verdict that Williams’ was not impaired by drugs — only that she had taken them.
Had Williams been found guilty of both driving under the influence charges, the county may have found itself in better circumstances, albeit only slightly, Christensen said.
“Even if she had been 18,000 sheets to the wind, someone going off the road into the median is something that can be predicted,” Christensen said.
And, if it can be predicted, safety precautions should be taken, he said.
Dawson has another decision to make in the coming weeks, said Marty Keach, who represents the Booth and Smith families, along with attorney Robert Murdock.
Dawson must decide if attorneys should be allowed to argue that the children’s civil rights were violated, Keach said. If Dawson agrees, there will be no cap on the amount of damages that can be awarded to each claimant.
If, however, Dawson rules that Clark County can be sued only for negligence, a cap of $50,000 per claimant would be in effect, Keach said.
The county is being sued by three claimants in most of the cases because many of the teens’ parents were divorced. In those cases, the child’s mother, father and estate each are claimants.
Republic Services, which was known as Silver State Disposal at the time of the accident, is not protected by a cap, Keach said.
“We’re alleging the county violated the children’s civil rights because they were in the custody of the county, and the county was consciously indifferent to the dangers they faced,” Keach said.
Should Dawson rule against the plaintiffs, Keach said, the attorneys plan to appeal the issue to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. If the appeals court upholds that ruling, the case would mostly likely be tried in Clark County District Court.
The civil rights issue isn’t being pursued to erase the cap, Keach said. The families believe the children’s rights were violated.
After all, he said, “What is the value of six children’s lives whose whole life was in front of them?”
Keach said he also thinks the actions of several county officials amounted to criminal negligence, and charges should have been filed against them.
Unfortunately, the attorneys were not permitted to hold a coroner’s inquest to establish who, if anyone, should be charged criminally, Keach said.
“Had we had an intellectually honest inquest, I am confident it would’ve found the county and Silver State should’ve been charged along with Jessica Williams,” Keach said.
The public pressure at that point would have guaranteed a prosecution by the Clark County district attorney’s office, Keach said.
“As far as I’m concerned, there was an empty seat at the defense table during Jessica’s trial, and someone from the county should have been sitting in it,” Keach said.
Christensen said he isn’t sure the issue of criminal charges is moot. Scott Garner Sr. is in the process of writing a letter to state Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa asking if she will look into such charges.
“Scott does not want to let this die,” Christensen said.
Scott Garner Sr. also is behind a bill that will be proposed within the next couple of weeks, Christensen said.
Assembly Bill 27, which is being sponsored by Assemblyman Richard Perkins, D-Henderson, would make it illegal for any child to “perform work or community service on or near a highway or in any other dangerous situation.”
While Clark County has discontinued the program that led to the teens’ deaths, Christensen said Garner wants all of the state’s children to remain safe.
“In his mind, if the bill gets passed, then his son didn’t die in vain. He died to help other children,” Christensen said.
The other families were asked to participate in drafting the bill, and some may testify before the Legislature, Christensen said.
Christensen said the bill is one of those that make sense but unfortunately are not written before tragedy strikes.
All of the attorneys involved in the civil case are in the process of gathering information, Christensen said.
One of the things they have discovered is that earlier contracts between Republic Services and the county included provisions that required the trash blowing out of the trucks on the way to the landfill be picked up by Republic immediately.
Another early provision called for Republic Services to clean up the interstate biweekly, Christensen said.
As the years went on, the provisions disappeared, Christensen said.
Christensen said he has also learned that had the children been paid for their work, they would have earned less than $2 an hour under the terms of the existing contract.
Although Clark County officials have pointed out that the program operated for 11 years without a problem, Christensen said children did not begin working on the interstate until 1995.
Christensen said Murdock often poses a question when they are discussing the case.
“If someone throwing a knife in the air cuts himself, but he didn’t cut himself the other 10 times he threw the knife, does that mean it was safe the other 10 times?”