A claim of wrongful death has been filed against the former leader of the El Paso County Republican Party regarding a 2017 vehicle accident that resulted in the death of a pedestrian and spurred some local controversy. The claim was filed in the Fourth Judicial District Court alleging that Trevor Dierdorff demonstrated negligence when he struck Mel Tolbert, the long-time owner of Platte Floral, while he was crossing a street in downtown Colorado Springs. The police had originally issued a traffic citation to Dierdorff for the incident. Dan May, the county's district attorney, later dismissed the citation because Tolbert was not using a crosswalk at the time and was considered to be jaywalking.
What Colorado Law Says on Crosswalks
Looking at the Colorado Springs City Code, we find that pedestrians crossing a roadway outside of a marked crosswalk shall yield the right-of-way to vehicles. Pedestrians crossing between intersections with traffic control signals, which was said to be the case here, are to do so within a marked crosswalk. State law requires that drivers maintain a duty to exercise care and avoid pedestrians in the roadway and use their horns when necessary. In addition, a local city ordinance states backing up should be completed safely and should not interfere with traffic; however, when a driver strikes a person or an object while operating in reverse, a presumption is created that the reverse movement was not completed in a safe manner.
Two Cases, Two Different Outcomes
Coincidentally, one month after Mel Tolbert was struck by Dierdorff, 26-year-old Ricardo Trevizo had abruptly placed his vehicle in reverse after stopping slightly past the correct position for a stop sign. When Trevizo put the car in reverse he struck Manuel Peak, an 86-year-old pedestrian who was crossing. Peak died several days later. The driver was found guilty and sentenced to a period of two years of probation and community service. The prosecution in this case said that the legal difference between the two cases was that Peak was crossing within a crosswalk—unlike Tolbert.
An attorney for Tolbert's widow Dianna, who brought the civil court action against Dierdorff, said that the accident would have been avoidable if Dierdorff had properly checked the area where he was attempting to back into in order to park. They allege that Dierdorff's vehicle was traveling very quickly at the time of the collision, which caused Tolbert to be propelled several feet and then striking his head. An attorney for Dierdorff issued a statement saying that his client is clearly sympathetic and “devastated” by the incident. He further explained that Dierdorff looks forward to promptly resolving the matter.
Surveillance footage captured the incident, which the plaintiff says shows that the defendant drove recklessly. A Colorado Springs detective referenced the same video footage in the details of an accident report. The report said that Dierdorff failed to properly use his mirrors when maneuvering and was “racing” to secure the parking space with another motorist. The citation that was originally issued was for a misdemeanor of careless operation of a vehicle leading to death. Dierdorff and Tolbert were reported to have been acquaintances and were actually both traveling to the same meeting at the time.
Prior to the collision, Tolbert had parked his car and was crossing Tejon Street. When dismissing the case, the district attorney explained that Tolbert was crossing nearly 25 feet from an intersection with crosswalks and that Dierdorff had supposedly checked his mirrors. Skeptics suggest that the dismissal was largely influenced by a friendly relationship between the district attorney and Dierdorff.
Civil Claim for Wrongful Death
Ms. Tolbert and her attorney met with representatives from the District Attorney's Office and expressed their willingness to accept the prosecutor's decision, but Ms. Tolbert's attorney explained that they personally did not agree with the grounds for dismissal. Though the citation was dropped, action is still being pursued against Dierdorff. Ms. Tolbert and her attorney filed a wrongful death lawsuit on December 4, 2017. The lawsuit demands damages for the following:
- Funeral and related burial expenses;
- Losses of enjoyment;
- Pain, suffering and inconvenience; and
- Emotional distress and losses of comfort.
What to take from this blog is simple: if you have been injured or a loved one has been wrongfully killed by the acts of another person, you may still be able to file a claim for damages, even if the charges against the accused are dropped by the prosecutor's office. The bar is set much higher in criminal matters than it is in civil matters. Though all the elements of a crime may not be present, all the elements to prove a personal injury claim may be present... and actionable.