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When life came crashing down

After a coma, George Damaa awoke a suspect in 3 deaths from a car accident he can't recall. Prosecutions in fatal collisions are rising.

August 25, 2008|Ralph Vartabedian | Times Staff Writer

George Damaa awoke after a seven-day coma in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 1995, his body shattered for reasons he couldn't remember.

The last thing he recalled was driving up Pacific Coast Highway on a warm Saturday in February with the top down on his sports car and his girlfriend, Lisa Bucher, in the passenger seat. They were headed to the former PierView Cafe & Cantina in Malibu, one of Damaa's favorite restaurants.

As he lay in the hospital, he learned that his pelvis was broken. Six of his ribs were broken. His arm was broken. And he had brain damage from a concussion. Pumped up with painkillers, his thoughts were jumbled.

But his problems were just starting.

The next day, Det. Joseph Jakl of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department came to Damaa's room and wanted to know what happened.

He told Jakl that he could not remember the crash but that he thought he was in bumper-to-bumper traffic and had turned left. That statement would prove critical.

Jakl was not taking a simple accident report. Damaa's Mercedes-Benz 500SL had slid across the center line and collided with a Buick Reatta, killing John Masterson -- creator of "The People's Court" and "Queen for a Day" -- and his wife, Mary. Bucher had also died.

Jakl was investigating whether Damaa had acted with negligence and violated one or more sections of the California vehicle code. If so, he would be charged with manslaughter.

There was no evidence of alcohol, drugs, extreme speeding or street racing. Damaa, of L.A., had a clean driving record and no criminal background.

"I had never been in trouble before," Damaa, 63, said.

None of that mattered.

In Los Angeles County, more than 700 fatal crashes occur every year. The vast majority do not result in criminal prosecution, and those that do typically involve impaired driving, illegal street-racing, blatant red light-running or road rage.

But dozens of drivers in other fatal accidents find themselves deep in the criminal prosecution system. The cases change lives and seldom leave the accused drivers or the victims' families satisfied that justice has prevailed.

Craig Datig, a vehicular homicide expert at the California District Attorneys Assn., estimates that about 1,000 people in the U.S. are prosecuted each year for vehicular homicide in accidents that did not involve alcohol or drugs.

"The public doesn't know the risk they are running by their everyday actions," he said.

A momentary distraction in a car -- something as simple as a spilled drink or an unruly child -- can lead to a prosecutable accident. A criminal charge is more likely if the driver has intentionally violated the law. There are many permutations of manslaughter charges, some felonies and others misdemeanors, based on legal standards known as simple or gross negligence.

"Simple negligence is something that might be charged if you are driving at the speed limit and blow a red light," said Tom Higgins, a supervisor for criminal prosecutions at the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. "Gross negligence occurs when you have behavior verging on reckless, without due regard for human life."

A misdemeanor can bring a year in county jail for each death. A felony based on gross negligence can bump the sentence up to six years for each death, assuming no alcohol or drugs were involved.

In California, the number of such criminal prosecutions is rising, in part because the state has aggressive legal standards and in part because, prosecutors say, advances in accident investigation technology allow them to more precisely understand the causes of fatal accidents.

"They are the saddest cases we ever see," Higgins said, referring to his customers who are model citizens one day and criminal defendants the next. "Every time I file one of these cases, I think, 'There but for the grace of God go all of us.' "

Holding drivers more accountable for their actions should make highways safer. But the Damaa case also shows the difficulty of doing that when no one can determine exactly what went on inside a car just before a crash.

Damaa, an immigrant from Lebanon, was general manager of Downtown L.A. Motors, running eight dealerships in Los Angeles for his wealthy uncle. He was initially charged with three felonies for the crash, and prosecutors wanted him to plead out the case. His attorney, the late Charles English, pushed Damaa to agree.

"I refused," Damaa said. "I said I would plea bargain if it were my fault. I could not even remember doing it."

The charges were reduced to misdemeanors, and prosecutor Elizabeth Lippitt, now an L.A. County Superior Court judge, took the case to trial in Malibu on Feb. 18, 1997. Damaa was accused of violating four sections of the vehicle code, including being on the wrong side of the road. There was no question he was on the wrong side of the road, but why?

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