Napa Valley Auto Accident

One collision. Two court cases. Two different outcomes

There’s nothing to mark the spot where Jennifer Haden and her unborn child died in a car crash on Highway 29 south of Yountville.

Motorists sweep by, oblivious to the accident that occurred there three years ago and the legal wrangling that followed.

registerThe event that ended two lives launched a series of court proceedings and accusations about who was to blame.

A man was convicted of Haden’s death in criminal court. A year later, the death resurfaced in the civil arena, with Haden’s relatives accusing two other drivers of contributing to the fatal crash.

In March, a jury agreed these additional motorists were at least partly responsible and ordered their employer, Collopack Solutions of Napa, to pay Haden’s family $4 million. This was one of the largest civil awards in recent county history, court officials said.

Collopack has paid the judgment, and the case now seems to have reached its end. But the facts of exactly what happened that March day in 2007 remain a blur.

The crash

On March 20, 2007, Lloyd Godwin and Gregory DeCaro were working their regular shift in Napa for Collopack Solutions, which sells and services wine packaging and processing equipment.

The two left Napa for an assignment in Healdsburg, heading north on Highway 29 with plans to go through Calistoga. DeCaro followed Godwin in the left lane.

South of Yountville, they noticed a northbound Nissan Frontier trying to pass vehicles, they testified in court.

The driver, later identified as Calistoga resident William McDonough, attempted to pass in the right lane several times. Each time, slower traffic in front of him thwarted his effort, they testified.

McDonough managed to pass DeCaro just as the two northbound lanes merged into one near Madison Street, they said.

Accounts of what happened next differ. Those versions led to blame being assigned differently in a criminal case against McDonough than in the later civil case.

Criminal prosecutors said McDonough made the pass after the “no passing” sign, slipping into the fast lane between Godwin and DeCaro. When DeCaro protested with his horn, McDonough slammed on his brakes in an act of road rage, they said.

DeCaro couldn’t slow in time and hit McDonough’s Nissan, forcing it into the oncoming lane, where it hit Haden’s vehicle, the district attorney said.

Haden, who was 16- to 18-weeks pregnant, was killed.

In the civil case, the sequence of events that led to the fatal accident were reframed in light of new information uncovered by the civil attorneys.

Richard Chan, a Fairfield-based civil attorney, said the first driver, Godwin, slowed rapidly after McDonough squeezed in behind him — an act of road rage.

To avoid Godwin, McDonough slammed on his breaks, Chan said. That’s when DeCaro hit him and forced him into the oncoming lane, according to the attorney.

The Napa County Sheriff’s Office, which has jurisdiction where the accident occurred, conducted an investigation and attributed a track of skid marks left on the highway to DeCaro’s vehicle. They said McDonough’s driving forced DeCaro to have to brake abruptly.

In the civil suit, Chan argued that the rubber on the road belonged to Godwin’s car. McDonough was a victim of road rage, not its perpetrator, he said.

The Criminal Case

McDonough was charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter and pleaded no contest.

“My client did not want to put the family through it,” said McDonough’s Santa Rosa defense attorney Chris Andrian. “He was very, very remorseful about it.”

Judge Rodney Stone gave him 60 days instead of the maximum 180-day sentence, saying he didn’t think McDonough was the only one at fault. McDonough, who the Register was unable to contact for comment, also received 30 days work program, anger management counseling and three years probation.

DeCaro should have backed off when McDonough merged, the judge said, according to a transcription of the hearing.

“It seems to me that we had two gentlemen that were driving northbound on Highway 29, and for some reason believed that they controlled the fast lane,” Stone said of DeCaro and Godwin. “That’s not how you should be driving in our county.”

The Civil Case

The case could have ended there, but Haden’s brother, William Haden and sister Kelly Knappe, filed a civil suit against DeCaro and Godwin on the 2009 anniversary of Jennifer Haden’s death.

The crux of the civil suit was the pair of skid marks on the highway.

Civil attorneys argued that they belonged to McDonough’s vehicle — not DeCaro’s as investigators originally said.

In a deposition, Detective Chris Carlisle told civil attorneys that he had contacted Northern California-based accident re-constructionist Rudy Degger.

Degger told Carlisle he thought the skid marks belonged to McDonough, Carlisle said.

If true, this would show that McDonough was actually braking to avoid Godwin — not to spite DeCaro, Chan said.

“You don’t leave 78 feet of skid marks unless you slam on your brakes because you’re in fear,” he said.

Carlisle said during the deposition that McDonough’s ownership of the skid marks wouldn’t have changed his opinion that he had acted out of anger.

“The only independent witness we have (said) that there was no aggressive or odd driving by (DeCaro and Godwin) up to that point,” he said.

Degger emphasized that he was never hired to officially investigate the crash. Carlisle asked him to give him an opinion, so he took a cursory glance at the evidence.

“The diagram that I have in this report, you really can’t make heads or tales of it because it’s such a small scale,” he said.

He may have alerted Carlisle to some “red flags” or things to look at, but he gave no official opinion and was never retained, Degger said.

The district attorney’s office found that Carlisle’s conclusions were accurate and reliable, Chief Deputy District Attorney Michael O’Reilley said.

“We did not believe it was necessary, or even useful, to hire any independent experts,” he said.

But Carlisle and Deputy District Attorney Catherine Borsetto should have told the defense about Degger’s opinion, Andrian said.

Chan agreed.

“It’s unconscionable that a law enforcement officer that is investigating a manslaughter case learns of facts that point to the innocence of a suspect that is charged, and they bury it,” Chan said.

Andrian is not sure the information about the skid marks would have changed McDonough’s fate, though it would have given Andrian more leverage to convince the district attorney’s office to prosecute DeCaro and Godwin, he said.

“I do think it was a serious breach on (investigators) part not to turn that over,” he said. He said they should have prosecuted DeCaro and Godwin. During criminal proceedings, he shared this opinion with Jennifer Haden’s brother, William Haden, he said.

Officials at the Sheriff’s and district attorney’s offices found that there wasn’t enough evidence to charge anyone other than McDonough, O’Reilley said.

Different laws apply in criminal and civil cases, he said.

“This was a terrible and tragic incident, which resulted in the loss of two innocent lives,” he said, referring to Haden and her unborn child. “We believe that under criminal law, McDonough was the sole person responsible for the accident.”

Jury Deliberations

In the jury room for the civil trial, sharp divides in opinion rose, then slowly ebbed, jurors recounted.

Napa resident Cathy Wallis was one who was torn. Her initial gut feeling was that McDonough was at fault.

But then jurors began to discuss each driver’s role in the sequence of events.

“It was like the perfect storm where all these events came together, and if one of them had changed their action, it might have averted the death of Jennifer,” she said.

The jury wasn’t told that McDonough, who has served his sentence and is out of custody, was prosecuted in criminal court. Finding out about his “no contest” plea made her “heartsick” about her decision.

“Not that I gave in on my principles totally, but I know I did compromise, and afterwards I did have a lot of second thoughts,” she said.

Denise Boydston said she believed the blame should have fallen solely on McDonough, she said. He was angry because he tried to pass and the other two drivers wouldn’t let him, she said.

In the end, she was outvoted.

Juror Gerald Casey became convinced all three were at fault after sifting through the evidence.

“The three of them together, acting bullheaded, caused this woman to die,” he said.

Casey said all three should have been prosecuted.

Jury foreman Sam Magro agreed, noting Godwin particularly seemed agitated during his testimony, nervous and fidgety. No one could prove that he hit his brakes, but Magro believed he did.

“People are uncomfortable in these situations, I understand that, but this was different,” he said. “He was uncomfortable, I think, about what he did.”

Magro said he was convinced that the skid marks belonged to McDonough’s Nissan and that he laid them down because he was slamming his brakes in fear.

He said DeCaro was following closely out of anger.

“If you didn’t have any rage in you and you weren’t trying to teach him (McDonough) a lesson, DeCaro back off, just back off,” Magro said.

In the end, the jury allotted McDonough 25 percent of the responsibility, Godwin 20 percent, and DeCaro 55 percent.

The more divisive issue was the amount of money to award William Haden. Some suggested $15 million. Others wanted a much lesser award.

In the end, they compromised. All left feeling the $4 million figure was a bit arbitrary.

Looking back, Wallis said it was too much. It punished the business Godwin and DeCaro worked for instead of them.

“I know that these two gentlemen were driving for their company, but it really ate at me that the company would suffer,” Wallis said.

The jury discussed the value of a life, but they had no guidelines on which to base an award, she said.

Magro, a small business owner himself, sympathized with Collopack Solutions.

“How did you go from these three guys to the business owner these guys work for and reach in his pocket?” he asked.

The jurors wondered, as they calculated a lost life in dollars and cents, why McDonough wasn’t listed in the suit. Still, they settled on $4 million, hoping it captured a balance between justice and fairness.

The Accused

DeCaro and Godwin were both left shocked and upset at the verdict, they said.

“I am crushed from being wrongly accused of something I was not guilty of,” DeCaro said.

Dave Means, a partner and vice president of administration for Collopack, said the award was out of line. The criminal process found McDonough at fault, he said.

“Because we were the company that had the insurance, not the other one, we were the one who were stuck with this penalty,” he said.

Both DeCaro and Godwin were devastated to be involved in an accident in which a woman was killed, Means said.

“We’re sorry about the accident and the death of the lady, and that’s been an emotional impact on a lot of our people,” he said.

Godwin said he is left with a bitter taste for the justice system. He felt helpless as Chan wove what he said were falsities that he couldn’t defend, he said.

“He made it sound like I was some kind of a criminal,” Godwin said.

Godwin also said they were targeted in the civil suit because they belong to a corporation that has money.

He maintains he was only a witness to the accident and got pulled in unfairly in what he called a “horrendous” process.

“Hopefully it’s behind us now,” he said.

‘Liable for Being Human’

The vehicular manslaughter charge is the only law that holds someone criminally responsible for “ordinary negligence,” Andrian said.

“It’s a tough statute because it holds us to a standard where we become criminally liable for being human,” he said.

The $4 million award, though steep, isn’t altogether surprising, he said.

“Juries have a history of holding someone accountable when someone dies,” Andrian said.

As a juror, Casey said he could see how split-second events could lead to such a tragedy.

“We had a blow-by-blow account of the anatomy of an accident, and it served as a caution to me,” he said.

In retrospect, he said, the crash was the culmination of “misdeeds piling up.”