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Santa Rosa agrees to pay $260,000 to woman hit by police truck

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It started as a quest for lottery scratchers.

Laure Friedell had parked her Nissan sedan outside the 7-Eleven on West Steele Lane in Santa Rosa at about 4:40 p.m. on April 27, 2017, a clear dry day. Before she ducked into the store to buy a few scratchers, she set her cigarette next to the front wheel on the driver’s side. She didn’t bother stubbing it out, figuring it would still be burning when she got back.

When she returned, she couldn’t find it. She hunched down by the ground near the side of her car, tickets in hand, looking for her smoke.

As she stooped, Santa Rosa Police Detective Michael Spediacci III turned into the parking lot. The narcotics investigator was headed to a nearby police substation to fill out his time card. He looked at the spot next to Friedell’s car and, thinking it was clear, started to pull in the city-owned Dodge pickup truck he was driving, keeping an eye on a large tree on the other side of the apparently empty spot.

But Friedell was still there, hunched over. Spediacci was moving slowly and decelerating when his truck hit her and rolled over her right foot and left leg. Spediacci later told police he felt a small bump, but he may not have known he hit the crouched woman until he opened his door and heard her screams, according to court records.

The crash, which left Friedell, 29, with serious and potentially permanent leg injuries, spurred a March 2018 lawsuit by the Santa Rosa woman. The Santa Rosa City Council agreed last month to settle by paying Friedell $260,000 in exchange for her dropping her suit.

City Attorney Sue Gallagher, who became Santa Rosa’s top lawyer two years ago, called the settlement a “significant” one for the city and said she could not recall another settlement related to an officer-involved collision with a pedestrian. Archived city settlement documents indicate the city paid just under $4,000 in 2017 to settle a man’s allegations that he was sideswiped by an officer on a motorcycle.

The 2017 crash that injured Friedell didn’t break any bones or tear any ligaments, according to her attorney, Josh West, but it left her temporarily unable to put weight on her left leg.

When she regained mobility, she found that her injuries had left her legs uneven, raising the prospect that she would need tendon extension surgery, West said.

“Her future in terms of ever getting this fully behind her and back to 100% may not happen,” West said.

Despite at least two police investigations that put the brunt of the blame on Spediacci, city attorneys mounted a defense. The city denied that the detective was liable for Friedell’s injuries and disputed the finding in the initial police report about how she was positioned at the time of the crash.

“Det. Spediacci was, from all that we have uncovered, alert and attentive at the time,” Gallagher said. “The facts appear that at most — looking at things in the best case for the plaintiff — he would have had about two seconds of visibility of a portion of her body.”

The Santa Rosa police officer who wrote the initial report determined the cause of the crash was an “unsafe parking maneuver with an associated factor of vision obscurement” related to Friedell’s body position and her nearby sedan. A second police review board focused on officer-involved collisions also looked at the incident and found that the crash was “preventable.”

Spediacci, a 37-year-old who has worked for the Santa Rosa Police Department since December 2011, disputed the finding that his parking attempt was dangerous in a deposition.

“I would state that there was nothing else I could have done, and that was a safe turning maneuver, and the only other violation I could say was a pedestrian in the roadway,” Spediacci said, according to court documents.

Capt. John Cregan said the police collision review board considered Spediacci’s position before concluding he could have prevented the crash.

“It was very evident to us that Det. Spediacci was not negligent, was not driving recklessly or dangerously,” Cregan said, “but ultimately, someone was injured as a result of his parking maneuver.”

“It was reasonable to us, when we examined it, why he didn’t see her there,” Cregan added. “It still was a tragic event, and unfortunately, the victim here, Ms. Friedell, was left with injuries. We make it a priority to ensure that our officers use caution when driving through the community.”

Spediacci was on a plainclothes assignment and was not equipped with a body or dashboard camera during the crash, Cregan said.

West, Friedell’s attorney, said it was only by chance that he became aware of the second police investigation into the crash. As part of his deposition of Toby Terpstra, a Colorado computer animator hired by the city to reconstruct the crash, West found an email from an assistant city attorney to Terpstra indicating the existence of the second inquiry.

Gallagher said the city did not deliberately withhold information and noted that disputes about legal discovery are not uncommon.

Terpstra’s reconstruction made it clear that Spediacci would have been able to see Friedell at least briefly if she indeed were bent over at the waist, Gallagher acknowledged. She added that one area of dispute the city raised was whether Friedell was actually bent over or whether she were kneeling or prone, positions that would have made her much more difficult to spot.

Terpstra declined to comment, citing company policy and deference to his client. It was unclear exactly how much the city paid for his services.

The city agreed to settle the case in July, shortly after West submitted a legal motion seeking parts of Spediacci’s personnel file and the detective’s cellphone records before and after the crash. Those records, which would show any disciplinary action taken against Spediacci, are typically not made public except through the court system.

Gallagher said West’s motion for those records did not affect or motivate the city’s decision to settle the case when it did, adding that there was “no question about the detective’s veracity or work history.”

Cregan declined to say what discipline, if any, was handed down, and agreed with Gallagher’s assessment of Spediacci: “He’s a solid detective. We’re very proud of his career here.”

West said Friedell had not been able to work because of her injuries, and was focused on trying to get necessary treatment and care.

“Is that full value or fair value?” West said of the $260,000 settlement. “That’s tough to tell.”

As for the lottery tickets, West said he wasn’t sure whether they were winners. He thought they had been lost in the aftermath of the crash.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com.

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