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Suit in 4 Killings Near College May Be Settled

Victims' families sued the parents of David Attias after he ran over the people near UC Santa Barbara. A pact has yet to be signed.

September 25, 2003|William Overend | Times Staff Writer

More than a year after David Attias was found guilty of killing four pedestrians and critically injuring a fifth by deliberately ramming his high-powered car into a crowd near the UC Santa Barbara campus, a civil lawsuit filed against his parents has been tentatively settled.

But the victims' families involved in the lawsuits have not yet signed the legal documents necessary to make a settlement binding, and a civil trial against Daniel and Diana Attias could begin next month if last-minute bickering blocks an official settlement.

David Attias, now 21, was ordered confined in Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino after being found legally insane by a Santa Barbara County jury during the sanity phase of a two-stage murder case in June 2002. The same jury found him guilty of four counts of second-degree murder.

The lawsuit against his parents, who owned the 1991 Saab that Attias drove into an Isla Vista crowd the night of Feb. 23, 2001, was filed last year in Los Angeles Superior Court. It accuses them of negligence in allowing their son to drive the car when they knew he had a history of drug use and violence.

There were large crowds of college students in the Isla Vista area when Attias drove his car through a stop sign at about 60 mph on a Saturday night. He first rammed into Nicholas Shaw Bourdakis and Christopher Divis, both 20. He then ran over Ruth Levy, 20, and Ellie Israel, 27, killing all four. Permanently injured was Albert Levy, 27.

According to the civil suit, Attias then jumped from his car, took a boxing stance and began to yell, "I'm the angel of death."

Separate lawsuits by the families of the victims were consolidated into one case now being heard by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Soussan G. Bruguera. Court records say "the consolidated cases have settled, pending execution of settlement documents." But Bruguera has set an Oct. 28 trial date if the agreement falls apart.

Daniel Attias, a television director who lives with his wife, Diana, in Santa Monica, has worked on such well-known shows as "The Sopranos." Testimony during his son's criminal trial established that he had pushed his son to stay at UC Santa Barbara even though his son was failing his classes and had asked to transfer to a community college.

Even as a child, mental problems were evident with David Attias, according to testimony. He tried to strangle his little sister when he was 13 and ultimately received diagnoses ranging from attention deficit disorder to budding schizophrenia. Trial testimony made it clear that the boy's mental problems had split his family.

The civil lawsuit states: "Daniel Attias and Diana Attias acted negligently, carelessly, recklessly and in conscious disregard of the safety of others" when they should have known their son was a threat.

Neither the families of the victims nor lawyers representing any of the parties in the case would comment Wednesday on the likelihood of the tentative settlement holding up in the next few weeks. Legal experts, however, said the case raises questions that many parents face in dealing with teenagers who have had drug or emotional problems.

"Obviously, I can sue the kid," said David Wood, a plaintiff's personal injury lawyer on the board of governors of the Consumer Attorney's Assn. of Los Angeles. "Then who next? The law says there has to be a legal duty, a breach of that duty, and that the breach must have been a substantial factor in bringing about the harm."

If the lawsuit goes to trial, Wood said, lawyers for the families could be expected to argue that David Attias' parents went far beyond the norm in ignoring trouble signs. Lawyers for the parents would make the case that any parent could find himself or herself in the same situation.

"The case will probably settle," he said. "It's very difficult to collect assets for victims, and it can be a lifetime. In a case like this, both sides would be foolish to go to trial. A friend of mine recently got a $4.9-million judgment against General Motors, and he'll never see a penny of it."

Scott Bice, a professor of civil law at USC, said the case involves a legal concept known as negligent entrustment that goes beyond child-parent issues. If, for example, you know your neighbor is drunk and you lend him your car and he hurts somebody with it, you can be held liable.

"In cases involving children, this comes up frequently with firearms," Bice said. "Failure to properly lock up a firearm is a failure in exercising proper responsibility. So in the case here, the plaintiffs are saying the parents went way over the limit in ignoring responsibilities. The defense is going to be saying all kids have problems."

One complicating factor in the Attias case is that Davis Attias was 18 at the time of the incident, generally the age of legal emancipation. Bice said it is much harder to establish negligent entrustment when children are 18 or older and have the means to buy their own car if necessary.

"It sounds like a case that's kind of close," he said.

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