Attorneys representing the city of Santa Maria are challenging a $420,000 civil judgment awarded to two men injured in a 2016 crash involving a Santa Maria Police officer.

Bob Otis Sell and Joel A. Hutchinson were injured May 16, 2016, when their pickup truck was rear-ended by Officer Michael Wheeler as he was reportedly responding to a call for service. According to documents filed in Santa Maria Superior Court, Wheeler was looking at suspect information on his in-dash computer when traffic ahead of him came to a stop.

Despite slamming on his brakes, Wheeler was unable to stop in time and struck the back of Hutchinson's pickup. The men were transported by ambulance to the hospital.

In December, at the conclusion of an eight-day civil trial, a jury awarded the two men a six-figure judgment for damages, lost wages and medical expenses. But attorney Ruben Escobedo III, who represents the city, argues that the evidence presented during trial was insufficient to support portions of the jury's final verdict.

Appearing Tuesday before Judge James Rigali, Escobedo asked the court to reduce the amount awarded to the plaintiffs by more than 80 percent — from $420,000 to approximately $67,000 — and to grant a new trial in the nearly 3-year-old case.

While Escobedo acknowledges that the city admitted liability in the incident, according to a motion submitted to the court, he maintains that the more than $250,000 awarded for past and future medical services was unsupported by evidence presented before the jury.

Of the three experts called on behalf of the plaintiffs, Escobedo said only one — medical value expert Paul Adams — offered substantial evidence regarding the reasonable value of care they received. According to Escobedo's motion, Sell should have been awarded approximately $27,000 in compensation for lost earnings, medical services and pain; and Hutchinson should have received $40,000.

The jury awarded Sell roughly $149,000 and Hutchinson received slightly more than $271,000, amounts Escobedo called "excessive." According to his motion, the large award was the result of "appeals to the jury's self-interest [...] improper 'Golden Rule' arguments [... and] a surprise request for damages [to $600,000] in their closing argument."

Attorney Michael Clayton, who represents Sell and Hutchinson, said substantial evidence was presented to demonstrate that the injuries to Hutchinson's knee, right shoulder and hernia and Sell's right shoulder were caused by the crash. The legal challenge could delay payments to the men for several years, Clayton said.

"Both our clients have required surgical intervention for serious shoulder and other injuries," he noted. “They have waited two years for this surgery and Mr. Escobedo’s appeal will hold that up and keep them in a continued limbo of pain and distress.”

City of Santa Maria spokesperson Mark van de Kamp did not respond to a request for comment. The case will return to Rigali's Santa Maria courtroom at 1:30 p.m. Monday.

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Mathew Burciaga covers education in Santa Maria and the surrounding area for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @math_burciaga


Education Reporter

Mathew Burciaga is a Santa Maria Times reporter who covers education, agriculture and public safety. Prior to joining the Times, Mathew ran a 114-year-old community newspaper in Wyoming. He owns more than 40 pairs of crazy socks from across the globe.