State blames fire captain for fatal 2019 crash with Caltrans truck

An off-duty Los Angeles County Fire Department captain killed in 2019 when his Jeep crashed into the back of a stopped Caltrans dump truck on the northbound Antelope Valley (14) Freeway in Santa Clarita died of his own negligence, lawyers for the state of California argue in new court papers.

Capt. Michael Shepard, a 63-year-old Agua Dulce resident, died at a hospital the day of the Jan. 23, 2019, accident, which occurred about 11:15 a.m. just south of Sand Canyon Road. According to the CHP accident report, the Caltrans vehicle — a GMC 3500 with a dump truck bed that was part of a sweeper operation — was traveling in the northbound center median when it was rear-ended by Shepard's Jeep.

The plaintiffs in a Los Angeles Superior Court lawsuit filed in September 2019 are his widow, Catherine Shepard; their son, Clint Shepard; and their daughter, Conni Billes. The family members turned down a $1.5 million settlement offer, according to the defense attorneys' trial brief lodged Wednesday with Judge Serena R. Murillo ahead of Tuesday's scheduled start of trial.

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The plaintiffs allege Beltran's truck did not have flashing or rotating amber lights and that there was too much distance between his truck and the Caltrans vehicle behind it, making it more difficult to know that Beltran's truck was part of the sweeping detail. But attorneys representing the state of California, dump truck driver Pedro Gonzalez Beltran and Herc Rentals Inc. say Shepard caused the accident.

"The state contends that (Shepard) was not traveling at a reasonable speed," the defense attorneys' trial brief states.

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Instead of slowing down and making sure that he had passed all the vehicles involved in the sweeping operation, Shepard instead tried to pass another vehicle and crashed into the back of the dump truck, according to the defense lawyers' trial brief.

"(Shepard) should have made sure that it was safe before attempting to change lanes," the defense lawyers' trial brief states. "Instead, (Shepard) may have assumed that he had passed the sweeping convoy and, in his impatience to get around (the other vehicle), he changed lanes when it was unsafe to do so."

If Beltran was a driver like anyone else on the freeway whose vehicle had stalled, Shepard would have still run into the back of it, the defense trial brief states.

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The day of the incident, Caltrans was conducting a sweeping operation with seven vehicles, including one from the CHP, that required the "moving closure" of the left shoulder and the HOV lane of the freeway. Beltran was driving partially in the median shoulder and partially in the HOV lane when he stopped to remove debris from the center divider, the defense trial brief states.

"Upon retrieving the debris, Beltran threw it into the back of the truck and sat back in the driver's seat," the defense attorneys' trial brief states. "He placed the truck in gear, removed his right foot from the brake and started rolling in a northerly direction. As soon as the truck began moving forward, Beltran felt a hard impact to the rear."

Caltrans employees later testified in depositions that vehicles in a sweeping convoy must keep a safe distance between each other because even though they are driving at a slow speed, the dump trucks must stop often to pick up litter and debris, according to the defense attorneys' trial brief.

"As such, the larger vehicles behind Beltran ... had to maintain a reasonable distance in order to be able to stop accordingly," the defense lawyers' trial brief states.

Although the plaintiffs maintain that Caltrans maintenance and safety manuals show Beltran's truck should have had flashing or rotating amber lights and a lesser distance between his vehicle and the Caltrans truck behind it, the defense attorneys state in their trial brief that the manuals are only a guide and "cannot be used as a 26 presumption to negligence nor do the manuals establish a standard of care."

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