SANTA ANA — A federal judge has ruled that U.S. Border Patrol agents acted negligently when they pursued a vehicle carrying illegal immigrants that crashed and killed six people outside a Temecula high school in 1992.
In a nonjury trial, U.S. District Judge Linda M. McLaughlin on Tuesday ordered the federal agency to pay $1 million to the relatives of the victims even though she found the fleeing immigrants were 75% responsible for the deaths.
The incident occurred after agents spotted a truck suspected of carrying illegal immigrants at the Mexican border and began chasing it north on Interstate 15 into Temecula, where the driver, Jesus Sandoval Macias, 16, ran a red light near a high school and struck a sedan, killing driver John Davis, 46, his son, Todd, 18, and a friend, Monisa Emilio, 14.
The impact sent the truck careening along a sidewalk, where it struck two teenagers, Jose Murillo and his sister, Gloria Marie Murillo, killing them.
Enicefero Vargas Gomez, 21, one of the 12 people riding in the truck, died later of injuries suffered in the crash.
While the 16-year-old driver of the truck was found guilty of six counts of second-degree murder, his conviction was overturned on appeal and is being reviewed by the California Supreme Court.
"The agents failed to use ordinary or reasonable care . . . and exposed third parties, including the children and husband of the plaintiff, to an unreasonable risk of harm," McLaughlin concluded.
Some of the plaintiffs were overjoyed with the judge's decision, which reflected the agency's share of responsibility for the deaths.
"I think it's great," said plaintiff Gloria Murillo of Temecula, who lost two of her three children in the crash. "That's enough for me. I couldn't ever say what my kids are worth. I'm just glad they found them negligent."
Opponents of high-speed Border Patrol chases into populated communities also applauded the judgment.
Dr. Thomas Shaver, a trauma surgeon at Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center who has treated victims of high-speed chases, said the ruling keeps the Border Patrol "accountable for putting innocent people at risk."
However, the former regional director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service blasted the ruling as "outrageous."
"Who appointed that judge?" asked an angry Harold Ezell, who worked for the INS during the Reagan administration.
Ezell said the same people who criticize the Border Patrol for not containing the United States border now want to hold the agency legally responsible when accidents occur.
"It's a terrible decision," Ezell said. "I wish that during chases, the Border Patrol officers had the ability to turn the engine off of the suspects' [car] they're chasing."
McLaughlin, who was appointed to the federal court by President George Bush in 1992, found the fleeing immigrants 75% responsible for the deaths and placed the remaining responsibility on the Border Patrol. She did not explain how she arrived at the different levels of responsibility.
Unlike local police and the California Highway Patrol, federal officers do not have immunity from lawsuits in cases involving law enforcement pursuits, said Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles.
Mrozek said no decision on whether to appeal the ruling had yet been made.