Judith Hall — an investigator with the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office who suffered a “bloodless decapitation” in September 2019 when a drunk driver plowed into the van in which she was a passenger on Highway 154 — won two major legal battles this month.
The drunk driver — off-duty Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Lieutenant Javier Antunez — was sentenced to six years in state prison on July 2 after having pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Earlier this week, Judge Colleen Sterne allowed Hall to pursue punitive damages against the owner of the BMW Antunez was driving at the time of the accident — as well as a passenger in the car — Esther Trejo-Takembaiyee.
Hall’s attorneys, Patrick and Briana McCarthy, charged that Trejo-Tankembaiyee — an employee with the county’s Probation Department — was “manipulating the genitals [of Antunez] in a sexual manner” at the time of the accident and that she was blocking his view of the road by leaning over the console separating the driver’s and passenger’s seats. In addition, they alleged she allowed Antunez to drive her car while seriously intoxicated.
Sterne ruled that the conduct alleged rose to the level of “willful misconduct,” the threshold necessary to allow Hall to seek punitive damages. Sterne made it clear in her ruling she did not know the basis of Hall’s attorneys’ claim they knew what was happening between Antunez and Trejo at the time of the collision, just that the allegations rose to the level “well above gross negligence and into the realm of despicable conduct.”
In earlier pleadings, Hall’s attorneys had been more oblique in their descriptions, asserting that Trejo-Takembaiyee “engaged to sexually stimulate” an already intoxicated and distracted Antunez. Trejo-Takembaiyee’s attorneys argued such allegations were insufficiently specific to justify the “willful misconduct” findings and Sterne had agreed with them. Hall’s attorneys replied with a more graphic account, and the new details changed the judge’s thinking.
Singing bawdy songs or even Trejo-Takembaiyee baring her breasts, Sterne opined, would have been one thing. But “blocking [Antunez’s] view out of the windshield” coupled with “significant sexual contact with his genitalia” was something else entirely.
The collision on Highway 154 left all four passengers in the van hit by Antunez seriously injured, but none worse than Hall. At Antunez’s sentencing hearing, Hall testified that she died three times while doctors sought to put her back together after the accident. Her head, she revealed, had become disconnected from her spine. “I suffered a bloodless decapitation,” she told the judge. Hall’s head would be fused back to her body with plates, screws, and rods. To turn her head today, she must turn her entire body. Hall returned to work a month ago.