Second lawsuit filed against Ford in deaths of Stanislaus deputy, CSO

Stanislaus County deputy, community service officer die in Modesto wreck

The California Highway Patrol is investigating a major accident involving a law enforcement vehicle near Crows Landing Road and Seventh Street in Modesto, California, on Saturday, May 13, 2017.
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The California Highway Patrol is investigating a major accident involving a law enforcement vehicle near Crows Landing Road and Seventh Street in Modesto, California, on Saturday, May 13, 2017.

Three women who had children with a Stanislaus County sheriff’s deputy who died in a crash while on duty have filed a second lawsuit against Ford Motor Co., two days after the deputy’s widow filed suit.

Both lawsuits allege that defects in the Ford Explorer Police Interceptor utility vehicle caused carbon monoxide to enter its cabin, causing Deputy Jason Garner to become incapacitated and lose control of the vehicle on May 13, 2017.

Community Service Officer Raschel Johnson was riding with Garner that day and also died.

Johnson’s widower, Michael Johnson, and their two minor sons are also plaintiffs in the first lawsuit with Jason Garner’s widow, Helen.

Helen Garner also has two children listed in the suit, 5- and 4-year-old sons.

The second lawsuit against Ford lists as plaintiffs Jason Garner’s ex-wife Sarah Stockton and their 17-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son; Suzanne Maire and their 10-year-old son; and Hannah Hiti and their 2-year-old son.

Raschel Johnson’s adult daughter is also listed as a plaintiff in the second lawsuit.

The cases will almost certainly be consolidated, as Ford likely does not want to be sued twice for the same accident, said Mary-Beth Moylen, a professor at the McGeorge School of Law.

Asked why the cases were brought separately in the first place, attorney David Winnett said, “Different family members hire different law firms.” Winnett, an attorney for the San-Francisco based Veen Firm, represents Hiti, Maire, Stockton, Johnson’s adult daughter and the four children.

A different San Francisco firm, The Matiasic Firm, represents Helen Garner and her two children and Michael Johnson and his two children.

“The law firms are working hand-in-hand together going forward,” said attorney Paul Matiasic. “There is a united front in terms of demonstrating that this particular accident was caused by carbon monoxide toxicity and that Ford is responsible for the defective product they put on the market.”

Garner and Johnson died from blunt force injuries in a fiery crash at a wrecking yard on Crows Landing Road.

Both had elevated levels of carbon monoxide in their blood. The California Highway Patrol could not determine an exact cause for the crash but said the evidence suggests Jason Garner suffered a “health related condition that rendered him incapable of cognitively controlling the vehicle.”

Garner was driving normally when he and Johnson left the Sheriff’s Department and traveled north on Crows Landing Road, but something changed.

He pulled over on the right shoulder at Pecos Avenue and opened his door, according to information from the automatic vehicle locator in the patrol car as outlined in a CHP report. Investigators don’t know why Garner pulled over or what he or Johnson were doing during that time, but the door remained open for 18 seconds.

When the patrol vehicle got back on the road, it was just over a half-mile from the point of impact.

“The speed of (the Ford) rapidly and continually increased as it traveled north in the northbound lane,” according to the CHP report.

As it accelerated, the Ford entered the opposing southbound lane, almost hitting another vehicle. It went back into the northbound lane, then again into the opposing lane, where it passed a white van before veering off the west shoulder and entering the wrecking yard.

The Ford was traveling 89 mph when it hit a pole supporting an awning of the business, then crashed into a metal table holding two automatic transmissions and a torque converter.

The Ford’s accelerator pedal was at 100 percent throttle in the final five seconds preceding the crash as it increased from 78 to 89 mph.

According to the CHP report, there was sufficient time “if he was not in an incapacitated state” to put the vehicle in neutral, perform a steering maneuver, brake or alter the course of travel prior to the crash, but Garner took none of those actions.

Garner’s blood had a carbon monoxide saturation level of 19 percent, below the 25 percent to 35 percent “potentially toxic” level listed on the report but above what would be considered normal, according to a toxicology report obtained by The Bee.

Johnson had a saturation level of 27 percent, which is within the “potentially toxic” level.

There was evidence — determined by soot found in her airway — that she may have taken a few breaths after the vehicle was filled with smoke, according to the autopsy report obtained by The Bee. There was no soot found in Garner’s airway, the report states.

While Garner suffered from anxiety and an enlarged heart and had a family history of heart disease, the investigation did not determine whether he was suffering a heart-related issue or anxiety prior to the collision.

Forensic pathologist Eugene Carpenter, who conducted the autopsies on Garner and Johnson, told The Bee earlier this month that carbon monoxide poisoning was ruled out as a factor in the cause of the crash. He said what caused the crash remains undetermined.

Carbon monoxide poisoning symptoms typically begin with sleepiness or a little headache, “but they don’t suddenly accelerate into a wall,” Carpenter said, referring to Garner’s actions moments before the crash.

Carpenter said the carbon monoxide levels found in Garner and Johnson’s bodies were due to smoke from the fire.

The attorneys representing Helen Garner and Michael Johnson argue in the lawsuit that the saturation levels found in Garner and Johnson are “alarmingly high and toxic.” They also argue that Garner lost consciousness as a result of the carbon monoxide entering the cabin; he lost the ability to control the vehicle, which led to the crash.

The two lawsuits brought against Ford in the deaths of Garner and Johnson are among a handful throughout the nation alleging that toxic levels of carbon monoxide are getting into the cabin of the Ford, resulting in collisions.

Ford says retrofitting to add equipment to the Explorer Police Interceptor after it leaves the factory creates holes and unsealed spaces in the back of the vehicle.

When police or fire departments install emergency lighting, radios and other equipment, they have to drill wiring access holes into the rear of the vehicle. If the holes are not properly sealed, it creates an opening where exhaust could enter the cabin, Ford officials said.

In addition to Ford, both lawsuits name as a defendant the Turlock dealership that sold the vehicle.

Both cases are scheduled to go before different judges on different days for case management conferences in September.

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