A jury Friday awarded $45 million in damages to the four children of one of two women killed when an intoxicated driver being chased by the CHP crashed into a crowd at a taco truck in Boyle Heights during a 2012 chase.

Memorial at site of fatal crash into taco-truck crowd. Photo via panoramio.com
A Los Angeles Superior Court jury deliberated for about an hour before finding that both Elba Jimenez, who was behind the wheel of the car that smashed into the two victims, and Maria Elena Rodriguez, who owned the vehicle her longtime girlfriend was driving, were jointly liable in the June 16, 2012, death of Claudia Fernandez.

The lawsuit was filed in June 2013 by the woman’s daughter and three sons. Rachel Fernandez, now 26, of South Gate, testified she was thrust into the role of mother to her brothers, now 19, 16 and 14, after their mother died at age 38. Each sibling was awarded $11.25 million.

Rachel Fernandez said outside the courtroom that she was still coming to grips with the size of the verdict and had trouble finding words to describe her emotions.

She said the family lived in Boyle Heights at the time and that her mother wanted tacos that night and went to buy them at the same truck where their family had gone many times before.

Rachel Fernandez said her mother did not know the other victim, 19-year- old Los Angeles resident Marlene Alatorre, whose family previously reached a settlement in a separate case filed against Jimenez and Rodriguez.

The Fernandez siblings’ attorney, John Carpenter, said he was happy with the verdict. He had argued to the jury that Rodriguez knew Jimenez was drunk, but did not try and take the keys away from her.

“I’m pleased that the jury found that Ms. Rodriguez was the owner of the car,” Carpenter said. “This accident could have been prevented if she had exercised reasonable care.”

Carpenter said the California Highway Patrol abided by proper procedures during the brief chase and that his clients do not blame the department for what happened.

Carpenter has appealed Judge Malcolm Mackey’s previous ruling dismissing the part of the plaintiffs’ case against the owner of the property where the taco truck was parked. The lawyer says the location was dangerous because patrons were vulnerable to being hit by vehicles being driven at high speeds on the freeway offramp.

Carpenter declined to comment on the likelihood of the award being collected from Rodriguez and Jimenez, who was convicted in 2013 of two counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced that same year to 35 years to life in prison.

Lawyer Timothy McDonald, on behalf of Jimenez and Rodriguez, declined to comment on the verdict. He had argued to jurors that the blame for the deaths fell squarely on Jimenez.

“Elba’s at fault, that’s it,” McDonald said during his final argument. “I’d be stupid to stand up here and talk about it any further.”

McDonald maintained that the two women jointly owned the car and that Rodriguez, despite seeing Jimenez drink three shots of tequila at a party, did not know her girlfriend was drunk.

“My client (Rodriguez) saw her (Jimenez) drinking, nothing else,” McDonald said.

According to CHP, one of its officers began pursuing Jimenez, then 38, in the belief she was intoxicated as her car began weaving about 11:20 p.m. on the eastbound Santa Monica (10) Freeway near the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The officer followed the 2005 Toyota Camry — being driven at speeds up to 100 mph — onto the northbound Golden State (5) Freeway, where the officer tried to make a stop.

The driver refused to pull over and sped off the freeway at the Cesar Chavez Avenue offramp, where she ran a red light and went into a parking lot, where she crashed into a truck where tacos were being sold.

Rodriguez had driven separately to Los Angeles that day to meet Jimenez, who was already there visiting her mother. They both went to a party that night before heading home to Ontario, again in different vehicles, according to trial testimony.

— City News Service

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