A federal appeals court today reinstated a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the California Highway Patrol by a South San Francisco woman whose husband was fatally shot after a police chase in Belmont in 2005.
The lawsuit by Shelly Lal and her son, Sagar Lal, was dismissed by a federal trial judge in San Francisco because Lal’s former lawyer, Chesterfield Spahr, missed deadlines and failed to show up in court. But a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco voted 2-1 that Lal was entitled to an unusual reinstatement of the lawsuit because her lawyer’s conduct was gross negligence.
The court said Spahr lied to Lal about his supposed work on the case, falsely promised he would send her copies of documents, didn’t tell her about upcoming hearings and didn’t tell her the case was dismissed. The panel majority said Lal had shown “extraordinary circumstances beyond her control” that justified allowing her to continue the lawsuit.
Lal’s husband, Kamar Lal, 43, was shot and killed on the shoulder of southbound U.S. Highway 101 in Belmont on March 6, 2005, at the end of a police chase that reached speeds of more than 100 miles per hour.
The two CHP officers who allegedly shot him, Frank Newman and Matthew Otterby, had joined a pursuit initiated by South San Francisco police after Shelly Lal had called police to report her husband had hit her during a argument about a pile of trash outside their house.
At the time of the shooting, Lal had crashed his Toyota truck in a drainage ditch, left the vehicle and thrown rocks at the officers, according to the CHP. Lal and her son allege in the lawsuit against the state, the CHP and the two officers that the officers used excessive force.
Spahr said in a statement today that he is “pleased and relieved” that Lal and her son will be allowed to continue the case.
“My gross mishandling of her case continues to be my greatest regret in my career and my life,” the attorney said. Spahr said he had a substance abuse problem at the time, for which he has now been treated.
His license to practice law has been suspended by the State Bar of California through October 2011. The San Mateo County District Attorney’s office announced in August 2005 that no criminal charges would be filed against the two CHP officers, following an investigation by that office and Belmont police. District Attorney James Fox said the CHP officers’ response was “lawful and appropriate.”