Jury awards $1 million in fatal bus stop crash

A million dollars is not justice enough for the families of those killed in 2004, when a Ford Explorer rammed into a northwest valley bus stop, the mother of two of the victims said Tuesday.

Justice would be for the SUV’s driver, Veronica Schmidt, to go to jail, said Clara Guardado after an absent Schmidt was found negligent in a civil lawsuit brought against her by the victims’ families.

A jury awarded the families $1 million — $250,000 per victim to be divided among the family members.

"I’ll only be happy if I can see her behind bars," Guardado said.

The jury found that the other defendant in the case, the city of Las Vegas, was not responsible for the March 14, 2005, crash.

Schmidt lost control of her Explorer and rammed into a bus stop near Smoke Ranch and Rock Springs roads, killing Raquel and Angelica Jimenez, 16 and 14, Samantha Allen, 36, and Reginald Williams, 16.

The district attorney’s office didn’t file felony charges against Schmidt, claiming there wasn’t enough evidence to prove she was under the influence during the crash.

After the city of Las Vegas pursued misdemeanor charges against her, Schmidt entered an Alford plea to driving under the influence of prescription drugs and reckless driving. She received a year probation.

An Alford plea is not an admission of guilt but acknowledges that if the case were to go to trial, there would be significant evidence for conviction.

"Veronica got away with everything; there is no justice done here," Guardado said.

"Veronica Schmidt never showed no sympathy, no nothing, you know. She isn’t even here," Guardado said.

Throughout the seven-day trial, Schmidt’s attorney didn’t know where his client was. He said he hired three investigators while preparing for the case and still could not secure a deposition from her.

She’s either in Las Vegas or Hawaii, attorney Phillip Emerson said. Schmidt lived in Hawaii before she moved to Las Vegas, he said.

Emerson argued that Schmidt, who was bipolar and recovering from knee surgery, suffered from syncope episodes, a cardiac disorder that causes sudden unconsciousness. Emerson unsuccessfully tried to convince the jury that his client did not know she would lose consciousness and put others at risk by driving. She received a dual-chamber pacemaker in October 2005 after the crash to prevent further syncope episodes.

Schmidt’s absence influenced the jury, Emerson said. "At the end of the day they wondered where she was … and didn’t think it was important enough (to her) to be there."

Despite a partial victory, the victims’ family members present at Tuesday’s verdict were not happy.

Tomeko Mack, Allen’s sister, said nothing good came of the trial. "From beginning to end it was a disaster," she said. "From the judge to everybody. It was just unfair. Evidence was left out, witnesses were left out."

The judge dismissed some of the defendants from the lawsuit, including Viacom Outdoor Inc., which merged with the company that had designed and owned the bus structure.

Duane Frizell, the attorney representing a majority of the families in the case, argued that the city violated industry standards by placing the bus stop only 5 feet from the curb. If the bus stop would have been 8 feet away, it would have not been hit, Frizell said.

The city’s attorney, Philip Byrnes, argued that the bus stop was within the recommended distance from the curb.

Frizell said the case against the city suffered when the judge didn’t allow expert witnesses to testify. Frizell intended to have a California-based civil engineer show that if the bus shelter were farther from the curb, the victims would have been more likely to survive.

"One of the (jury’s) concerns is they thought, probably, at the end of the day, (the victims) would have gotten hit anyway," he said. "Not having that expert really denied us the opportunity of presenting our case."

With Schmidt gone, the chances of the families receiving their portion of the award anytime soon is unlikely, Frizell added. Schmidt’s lawyer is being paid by her auto insurance company, but the company is not obligated to pay anything above the policy limits, Emerson said. Her lawyer would not disclose what Schmidt’s insurance policy entailed.

Frizell said the policy was well below $1 million.

"Veronica is nowhere to be found, and we are never going to get a dime," Guardado said.

"This whole thing has been a waste of time."

Contact reporter Beth Walton at bwalton@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0279.

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