Family seeks $9.6 million from Caltrans for fatal Cotati crash

Lawyers for a Santa Rosa mother killed in a 2009 crash argued Thursday that Caltrans was partly to blame for her death and asked jurors to award her family $9.6 million.

Maria Juana Flores, 36, was rear-ended on Highway 116 in Cotati when she stopped to make a left-hand turn onto Madrone Avenue to pick up her kids at school. Her red Honda was crushed when it was pushed into the path of a big-rig truck.

Flores' lawyers sued the driver and the state, claiming Caltrans engineers knew the intersection was unsafe. Attorney Jeremy Fietz pointed to unfulfilled plans dating back to 1998 to build a left-turn lane and traffic volume counts he said were "off the charts."

To make up for the loss of life, Fietz asked jurors to award Flores' husband and three children $646,446 in economic damages and $9 million in non-economic damages, suggesting the state pay as much as 80 percent.

"You can give more. You can give less," Fietz told jurors. "It's in your hands."

Before the panel awards the family any money, jurors will have to answer yes to eight questions, including whether road conditions played a role in the crash and whether Caltrans knew of and had a reasonable time to correct any problems.

The state's lawyer, Landa Low, said the intersection was not to blame because crashes there were below the state average. In the five years leading up to Flores' death, there were eight crashes at that spot, none fatal, she said.

She pointed instead to the man who rear-ended Flores, Gilbert Freeth of Huntington Beach, who she said wasn't paying attention and slammed into the back of Flores' vehicle going 45 mph.

Nothing was blocking his view of her car, which was stopped on a flat, straight road waiting for traffic to clear, she said.

"The accident was set in motion by Mr. Freeth, not by any condition of the roadway," Low said.

The Flores family has already settled with Freeth's insurance company, so he won't be obligated to pay any damages.

Jurors are expected to begin deliberations this morning after hearing more arguments from the family's lawyer.

Local officials have been lobbying to improve the intersection since Flores' death. Their efforts appeared to gain momentum after a crash at the same location a month later killed Anais Barajas Centeno, a 17-year-old Casa Grande High School student. The driver of the car carrying Centeno was convicted of vehicular manslaughter for failing to yield right-of-way.

Last summer, land was donated to Caltrans to install a left-turn lane, but the project hasn't been finished.

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