Jury finds county not responsible for man's injuries; former employee fired for stolen fuel

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A jury determined on Dec. 4 that Valencia County was not liable for the injuries of a Jarales man who claimed a then-public works employee purposely ran over his foot in 2010.

The jury deliberated for more than five hours and found that the county and Steve Chavez, an ex-county employee, were not negligent for allegedly running over the foot of Robert Santiago.

The trial, which was presided over by District Court Judge William Sanchez, lasted one week before the jury made its decision.

Santiago's attorney, Eric Jefferies, claimed Chavez was driving a Valencia County Public Works pickup when his client's foot was run over on Calle De Baca, a road south of Belen, in July 2010.

Jefferies said Chavez and another county employee said they saw Santiago and another man throwing cinder blocks into a nearby arroyo as they were driving by.

Shortly after, the county employees turned around and stopped to talk with the two men.

According to the lawsuit, the men "angrily threatened" Santiago with a $1,000 fine. He and the other man picked up the cinder blocks after they initially saw the county vehicle.

The lawsuit claimed Santiago was standing on the passenger side of the truck, "receiving verbal abuse," when "Chavez intentionally and recklessly stomped on the gas accelerator of the truck. "…(Chavez) drove the Valencia County truck over Santiago's foot, causing him to fall on his right shoulder, causing extensive damage."

Santiago followed the men to a Valencia County job site where he video taped them on his camera phone.

The lawsuit said the incident caused severe damage to his right shoulder socket, an injury that Jefferies claimed cost him thousands of dollars in potential earning capacity.

Jefferies told the jury that Chavez "crippled" his client. He said Santiago was talking to the two men to convince them not to fine him.

Chavez claimed Santiago pretended to have his foot run over while testifying in a pre-trial deposition.

"What fool would stick their foot underneath a truck and have it damaged?" Jefferies asked. "I can't imagine."

But defense attorney Dennis Wallin said the man has had a history of medical problems and that the county worker wasn't at fault.

The first day of the trial, Nov. 27, Wallin claimed the man had three prior workers' compensation claims and that he had problems with his right shoulder ever since the prior incidents.

He told the jury that in 1995, Santiago was in a car crash where he injured the same shoulder.

The attorney said the injuries left him unable to raise his arm over his head and caused him to carry his wallet in his front pocket.

"What this case is about is that Mr. Santiago got caught," Wallin said. "The evidence is going to show that he got caught a bunch of times.

"He's gotten caught exaggerating, he's gotten caught lying."

Wallin said one of those lies came at the scene when he said the man told the county employees he had dumped masonry in that area before and that he had permission to dump by the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District.

The defense attorney refuted claims that the man earned $25,000 in 2011, a year after the incident.

"(The injuries) did not happen in 2010 and we are not responsible for it," Wallin said.

Chavez testified he thought Santiago "faked" getting run over and said the man fell back on his own. Shortly after, Chavez said Santiago showed up at the job site.

On the video, Santiago can be seen yelling at Chavez — claiming he ran over his foot. Chavez, who admitted he was "in a rage," cursed at the man on the video.

Chavez testified he thought Santiago was going to physically confront him.

"He was looking for a brick or a pipe because he was going to come after me," Chavez said. "I lost my temper because I was (trying) to defend myself."

Chavez was terminated from his county position in October 2010 because of accusations he stole fuel from the county.

Wallin said he thought the jury believed Santiago fabricated his story. He said the jury was very attentive and was very interested in all of the testimony in the case.

He said the jury's verdict was the right determination.

"It was the appropriate decision," he said.

Santiago was asking the jury to award him $37,000 in medical costs, which included an operation on his shoulder.


-- Email the author at bruffner@news-bulletin.com.