SANTA ANA — A Superior Court jury decided Thursday that no one was to blame for the farming accident that killed a 7-year-old child belonging to one of Orange County's most prominent families.
Theodore Segerstrom, whose family built and owns South Coast Plaza, appeared relieved but did not comment when he left the courthouse after a jury voted 10-2 to reject a lawsuit brought by his ex-wife, Euna Denee Segerstrom, 35.
"We won't talk to you today, maybe in another two or three days," said Euna Segerstrom's attorney, John Quincy Adams, as he put his arms around his stunned client and gently helped her stand up to leave the courtroom.
The wrongful death lawsuit alleged that Segerstrom, 38, was negligent while driving a tractor on Aug. 31, 1993, with an eight-ton bean thrasher attached and 7-year-old Corinne aboard, in the family's lima bean field on MacArthur Boulevard. She fell from atop the thrasher and was crushed.
Also named as defendants were C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, the family's agricultural and development company, and Ruben Alcala, a 77-year-old farmhand who lives in Fountain Valley.
The jury deliberated only two hours.
Jury foreman Chuck Johnston said jurors spent those hours looking at courtroom exhibits outlining the family's farm and equipment. But common sense told them this was an accidental death, he said.
"We felt this was a tragic, tragic accident and there was no one to blame," Johnston said. "Both people are suffering a great deal in the loss of their child."
Segerstrom already has agreed to a partial settlement; his insurance company will pay $43,000 in attorney's fees and $175,000 to buy an annuity for the benefit of a second daughter, Rayell, 11.
In court, Segerstrom argued that his ex-wife had allowed their daughters to participate in the Segerstrom's annual harvest at the Santa Ana ranch.
"But," Adams said, "when she agreed, there was nothing said about [Corinne] riding on a tractor out there."
Johnston said jurors considered a letter written three years ago by Corinne's father to her mother seeking permission to join in the harvest.
"We thought it had been a longstanding tradition by the Segerstroms of participating in the harvest," Johnston said. "He wrote [Euna Denee] a letter three years earlier asking her that he would someday like to see and have his daughter riding on the tractor with him."
Johnston also said that jurors had noted the bitterness between the Segerstroms, which was evident in court.
"It appeared to us," Johnston said, "that there were big problems in that marriage. My guess is, it was pretty rancorous from the time of their separation through today."
Theodore Segerstrom, who is active in the company's agricultural interests, is the son of the late Harold T. (Hal) Segerstrom, who along with his cousin, Henry Segerstrom, turned the family's lima bean fields into retail and office parks in the South Coast area.