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Plaintiff entered tractor-trailer’s lane and caused crash: defense






Monterey County


Superior Court of Monterey County, Monterey

Injury Type(s):

head; brain-coma; brain-brain damage; other-swelling; other-compression fracture; pelvis; pelvis-fracture, pelvis;
face/nose-face; face/nose-fracture, facial bone;
mental/psychological-depression; mental/psychological-cognition (memory, impairment), impairment (memory, impairment)

Case Type:

Motor Vehicle – Center Line, Multiple Impact, Multiple Vehicle

Case Name:

Svetlana Owens v. Robert Joshua Burton, Ryder Truck Rental, Inc., Rizelle Custodio, and Ace Hardware Corporation,
No. M126276


July 20, 2017


Svetlana Owens (Female, 39 Years)

Plaintiff Attorney(s):

John K. Crowley;
Gates Eisenhart Dawson;
San Jose,
Svetlana Owens ■ James L. Dawson;
Gates Eisenhart Dawson;
San Jose,
Svetlana Owens

Plaintiff Expert(s):

Ted Kobayashi; M.S.; Accident Reconstruction; Livermore,
CA called by:
John K. Crowley, James L. Dawson ■ Dale Helman; M.D.; Neurology; Salinas,
CA called by:
John K. Crowley, James L. Dawson ■ Gary Stimac; M.D.; Neuroradiology; Issaquah,
WA called by:
John K. Crowley, James L. Dawson ■ Paul Slosar; M.D.; Spinal Surgery; Daly City,
CA called by:
John K. Crowley, James L. Dawson ■ Frank Perez; Ph.D.; Ergonomics/Human Factors; Livermore,
CA called by:
John K. Crowley, James L. Dawson ■ Maria Brady; M.S., C.R.C., C.L.C.P.; Vocational Rehabilitation; Walnut Creek,
CA called by:
John K. Crowley, James L. Dawson ■ Michael Martinez; M.S.N.; Life Care Planning; Sacramento,
CA called by:
John K. Crowley, James L. Dawson ■ Phillip Allman, III; Ph.D.; Economics; San Francisco,
CA called by:
John K. Crowley, James L. Dawson


Rizelle Custodio, 

Ace Hardware Corp., 

Robert Joshua Burton, 

Ryder Truck Rental Inc.

Defense Attorney(s):

Barry C. Snyder;
Snyder Law LLP;
Santa Barbara,
Ace Hardware Corp., Robert Joshua Burton ■ Jeffrey Y. Choi;
Snyder Law LLP;
Santa Barbara,
Ace Hardware Corp., Robert Joshua Burton ■ None reported;

Santa Barbara,
Rizelle Custodio, Ryder Truck Rental Inc.

Defendant Expert(s):

Claude Munday;
CA called by:
Barry C. Snyder, Jeffrey Y. Choi ■ Anthony Cornetto;
Accident Reconstruction;
MD called by:
Barry C. Snyder, Jeffrey Y. Choi ■ Maureen Miner;
Physical Medicine;
CA called by:
Barry C. Snyder, Jeffrey Y. Choi


On the morning of Friday, Jan. 20, 2012, plaintiff Svetlana Owens, 39, a language instructor at the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, was driving her Chrysler Sebring on her way to work. After exiting Cabrillo Highway, also known as State Route 1, onto Holman Highway, also known as State Route 68, she began traveling downhill through a series of S-curves as it was lightly raining and had just become light out. As Owens entered an S-curve to her right, a tractor-trailer operated by Robert Burton entered the same turn from the opposite direction, making his turn to the left around the curve. As both vehicles came around the curve in opposite directions, Owens’ car struck the fourth axle and left rear tires of Burton’s trailer, causing Owen’s vehicle to be sent backward into her lane and rotate counterclockwise. As the car came to a stop, Owens’ vehicle was then struck by a Nissan operated by Rizelle Custodio, who was following Owens down the hill. Owens sustained injuries to her head, face, and pelvis. Owens sued Burton; Custodio; and Burton’s employer and owner of the tractor-trailer, Ace Hardware Corp. Owens alleged that Burton and Custodio were negligent in the operation of their respective vehicles and that Ace Hardware was vicariously liable for Burton’s actions. Ryder Truck Rental Inc. was also initially named as a defendant, but it was erroronously sued and, thus, Ryder was dismissed from the case. In addition, it was determined that Custodio was uninsured. As a result, Owens collected from the uninsured-motorist-provision of her own insurance policy, and Custodio, who did not have counsel, was dismissed from the case. Thus, the matter continued against Burton and Ace Hardware, who moved to bifurcate the case, but their motion was denied. Owens claimed that Burton’s trailer came into her lane, primarily because of off-tracking. At trial, Owens testified that the first time she saw the tractor-trailer was when she was past the tractor and observed the side of the trailer. She also testified that she was trying to stay in her lane and believed that she was in her lane at the time of impact. Owens also made a modest claim that a different route should have been used by Ace Hardware and its drivers. The plaintiff’s reconstruction expert opined that the gouge marks in Burton’s lane were unrelated to the accident and that they did not fit his reconstruction. However, he admitted that if the gouge marks were related, they would show where the accident occurred. Defense counsel noted that the investigating California Highway Patrol officer relied on fresh gouge marks in Burton’s lane, witness statements, and his experience to conclude that Owens crossed into Burton’s lane and caused the crash. Defense counsel noted that at the time of the accident, Burton was driving a tractor and pulling a 48-foot trailer, lightly loaded and that Burton had driven the subject route twice a week for seven years. Counsel also noted that Burton had been driving for 32 years, had a single ticket when he was 21 years old, and had been involved in no accidents of any type, even property damage, in the 2.5 million miles Burton had driven as a commercial driver. Burton testified that it was his custom to hug the right side of the road at the fog line when turning left through the curve. Thus, he believed that his trailer was fully within his lane at the time of the crash. An eyewitness driving in a pickup truck behind Burton’s tractor-trailer testified that he was 100 percent certain that the tractor and trailer were always in their lane of travel. In addition, Custodio testified at trial that she braked as she entered the turn, but that Owens did not. She also testified that it appeared that Owens was going to go left just before the impact. The defense’s reconstruction expert testified that the plaintiff’s reconstruction expert used an old software program (PC-Crash) to reconstruct the accident and that the software does not allow detailed vehicle interaction. The defense’s expert testified that rather than using the older software, he used HVE 3D software and was able to reconstruct the accident precisely, including being able to account for the gouge marks. The defense’s expert concluded that the reconstruction placed the impact at the gouge mark location, thus tying the marks to the accident.


Owens sustained multiple facial and head fractures, a lumbar compression fracture, and pelvic fracture. She also suffered brain trauma as a result of her serious head injury. She was subsequently hospitalized and placed in a medically-induced coma. While in the hospital, Owens had a portion of her skull temporarily removed to allow for brain swelling and she later underwent surgery to remove dead brain tissue. She was then transferred to rehabilitation after two months and underwent daily measures. Owens claimed that she continues to suffer from significant memory deficiencies, depression, and cognitive problems. Owens, a Russian by birth and a naturalized U.S. Citizen, was previously hired by the Defense Language Institute, in Monterey, to teach Russian to military personnel and other U.S. government individuals. About nine months after the accident, she was cleared to return to work, where she earned about $60,000 per year for one year. After that, her contract was not renewed. Owens claimed that she was unable to obtain full-time work after that. The plaintiff’s expert neurologist testified that Owens was totally and forever unemployable. Plaintiff’s counsel also called two of the defense’s retained expert witnesses during the plaintiff’s case and paid their fees. Thus, plaintiff’s counsel presented a life care plan of $4,828,897 (present value), including $221,489 for Owens’ past loss of income and $1,511,475 in present value for Owens’ future loss of income and benefits. During closing arguments, plaintiff’s counsel requested a verdict of $10 million, plus economic damages, which including $774,700.30 for Owens’ stipulated past medical bills. Defense counsel disputed the claim that Owens was unable to work and noted that Owens testified that she was working 30 hours per week at the time of trial.


The jury rendered a defense verdict. It found that Burton was not negligent.

Trial Information:


Thomas W. Wills




$170,000 (C.C.P. § 998) from Burton and Ace Hardware

Trial Length:


Trial Deliberations:


Jury Vote:


Jury Composition:

7 male/ 5 female

Editor’s Comment:

This report is based on information that was provided by defense counsel for Burton and Ace Hardware. Plaintiff’s counsel did not respond to the reporter’s phone calls and counsel for the remaining defendants were not asked to contribute.