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Mother Sues Over Tractor Death of Segerstrom Child

January 22, 1994|JODI WILGOREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Euna Denee Segerstrom has sued her ex-husband, Theodore, saying he was negligent last summer while driving the tractor that crushed their 7-year-old daughter to death in the prominent family's lima bean field.

In an apparent coincidence, the lawsuit was filed in Orange County Superior Court Thursday, within hours of the death of the girl's grandfather, farmer-developer Harold T. (Hal) Segerstrom.

"That's incredible to me. I can't believe that," Werner Escher, a Segerstrom family spokesman, said Friday night. "I'm shocked. I don't know anything about it. That's incredible."

The wrongful death and negligence lawsuit, which does not seek a specific amount of money, names as defendants Theodore W. Segerstrom, 47; C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, the family company; and Ruben Alcala, a 76-year-old retired farmhand who was riding with Corinne at the ranch the day of the accident.

Alcala, who lives in Fountain Valley, said Friday that he has missed many nights' sleep feeling "terrible" about the girl's death.

"It was just an accident. You know how kids are, when they're young they get into mischief. She wanted to get down, and she didn't wait for (the tractor) to stop," said Alcala, who worked for the Segerstroms for 47 years. He retired in 1990 but often returned to the ranch to help out.

"I was tending to my machine. When I looked around, I noticed that she wasn't there and she was tumbling down," he said. "I love the kids. I like all the people that work with me, so I take it on my own. . . . For a long time, I couldn't sleep. I felt terrible."

According to the lawsuit, Corinne and her sister, 9-year-old Rayell Segerstrom, were at the Santa Ana ranch on MacArthur Boulevard on Aug. 31 during a visit with their father.

Rayell rode next to Ted Segerstrom on the tractor, while Corinne sat atop an eight-ton bean thrasher near Alcala, who was supervising several other farmhands collecting lima beans, the lawsuit says.

In the lawsuit, Euna Denee Segerstrom contends that her ex-husband, Alcala and the company were all negligent in allowing Corinne to ride on farm equipment while Ted Segerstrom and Alcala were harvesting beans and supervising workers.

"Defendants . . . owed a duty to Plaintiff Euna Denee to supervise and watch out for the safety and welfare of her daughter, Corinne and not place her in a position of foreseeable danger," the lawsuit says.

"Segerstrom . . . should have known that allowing (Corinne) to sit atop an 8-ton bean thrasher would be a dangerous position for a 7-year-old girl. . . . Entrusting her care, safety and welfare to (Alcala) who is supervising other employees . . . and not able to devote full attention to the safety of (Corinne), would be placing (Corinne) in a position to incur great bodily harm or death."

The lawsuit also says the company should not have allowed Ted Segerstrom to take children out on heavy equipment because he previously has been "afflicted with alcoholism, drug abuse, epileptic seizures and on occasions displays irrational behavior and judgment."

Family members could not be reached for comment on the lawsuit Friday. The Segerstrom family arrived in Orange County in 1898 and at one time was the largest independent producer of large lima beans in the United States. As their land grew too expensive to farm, the Segerstroms turned to commercial development, building South Coast Plaza in 1967 and a string of other retail ventures.

The family also has led the fund-raising campaigns for the Orange County Performing Arts Center and South Coast Repertory.

Ted Segerstrom, meanwhile, has remained involved in the family's agricultural pursuits. Workers at the ranch said at the time of the accident that he often drove tractors.

Funeral services for Hal Segerstrom are scheduled for Tuesday at 2 p.m. in St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church, 600 St. Andrew's Road, Newport Beach, with burial to follow in Fairhaven Memorial Park, 1702 E. Fairhaven Ave., Santa Ana. There will be a viewing at Fairhaven from 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday.

Instead of flowers, donations should be made to the burn unit at Shriner's Hospital for crippled children, 3160 Geneva St., Los Angeles, Calif. 90020.

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