Friday afternoon marked the end of the trial involving the mother of Simon Chavez, a 22-year-old killed in a hit-and-run accident on Highway 101 two years ago, and the cab company she alleges is responsible for his death.
Ana Quintanar is suing Absolute Cab Company, Absolute’s owner Joshua Klein, and the taxi driver who transported her son shortly after midnight on January 15, 2013, Thomas Rhyne, for negligence. Quintanar claims they had a legal duty to ensure that her son safely arrived at his destination once Rhyne had picked him up and accepted money for the ride.
Chavez was struck by a car driven by Lau Van Huynh while he stumbled south on the freeway after Rhyne had dropped him off at the intersection of Carrillo and De La Vina street, more than a mile short of his original destination; Chavez got out of the car there to vomit. (Van Huynh pleaded no contest to felony hit-and-run and was sentenced in April 2013 to a year in jail and three years of probation.) Quintanar is seeking upward of $8.2 million in damages.
Several witnesses testified during the 11-day trial, including friends and family, who described Chavez as “humble,” “caring of others,” and “a good kid.” Quintanar testified that Simon was her “best man” and that “he was the man of the house before my husband.” Others who testified included Fred Warrecker and Leslie True, both who knew Chavez when he coached the baseball team for Santa Barbara High School. Chavez, a Santa Barbara City College student at the time of his death, also served as a Special Olympics volunteer and cared for his autistic brother.
Rhyne’s testimony recounted what happened the night of Chavez’s death. After letting Chavez out on Carrillo Street, Rhyne made a U-turn and pulled into the Mel’s parking lot where he honked and yelled to get Chavez’s attention to return to the car. He continued to do so for three-to-five minutes until he alleged that Chavez gave him a “wave-off” as a signal for him to leave. Rhyne last saw Chavez walking west in front of the Spudnuts parking lot on Carrillo Street.
Barry Cappello, Quintanar’s lawyer, stated in his closing arguments that Chavez’s inebriated state made him “vulnerable,” and that Rhyne had abandoned him more than one mile from his destination. Cappello and legal partner Leila Noël questioned the credibility of Rhyne’s story during cross-examination, saying that there was no reason for Rhyne to believe that Chavez could see him parked across the street. Quintanar’s lawyers also inquired of the location of the taxi’s log for that evening, which would have documented the exact pick-up and drop-off times of Chavez. Rhyne stated that the log was “stolen” soon after the incident.
Robert Bergsten, the lawyer for Klein, Rhyne, and Absolute Cab, said that while Chavez’s death was tragic, personal responsibility should be a factor in the jury’s decision. Bergsten argued that once Chavez exited the taxi, he was no longer a passenger and thus the ride and Thomas Rhyne’s duties as a driver were terminated.
He also argued that Rhyne didn’t know how intoxicated Chavez was — he had a 0.285 BAC, more than three times the legal limit — and that it was “not a foregone conclusion” that Chavez would walk a quarter of a mile onto the freeway after Rhyne let him out of the cab. After making his closing arguments, Bergsten said he thought the jurors — heading into deliberations this week — were “bright, intelligent, and patient” and will “do the right thing.”