By: Joe Strupp
The attorney for David Halberstam’s family believes that the student who was driving the car in which the famed author was killed acted negligently and recklessly. But he is not surprised that a police inquiry completed this week, and announced last night, found no criminal action, although the district attorney has yet to rule.
“I think it was a standard negligent automobile accident. He was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol — it was appropriate that it not be brought as a criminal matter,” Attorney Martin Garbus said Friday about the April 23 crash. But he added, “It is clear he acted negligently and it is clear he acted recklessly.”
Garbus said the University of California, Berkeley, which supplied the driver, Kevin Jones, a graduate student, may also be at fault. He said Jones had two previous serious accidents, including one that was his fault. “The thing that concerns me is whether there is any responsibility on the part of the university for having supplied the driver with a bad driving history,” Garbus said via cell phone from California, where he is conducting research on the case. “That is something I am looking at.”
Mike Smith, the UC chancellor for legal affairs, said the university is not responsible for the driver’s actions because it did not hire him. “We see no basis for university liability in this tragic situation,” he told E&P Friday. “The University, at the request of Mr. Halberstam and the Alumni Association, simply put out a notice to the student body looking for a student who might drive him.”
Attorney Laurel Headley, who is representing Jones, declined comment on Garbus’ accusations or any other aspect of the case Friday.
When Halberstam had sought a driver during his trip to take him from the university to an interview for an upcoming book, he had apparently offered to “pay handsomely” for a student driver and “give them a journalism seminar on the way,” his wife, Jean, told E&P on Thursday. Garbus said that the university sent an e-mail on Halberstam’s behalf to students with the offer seeking a driver. He said he has obtained copies of the e-mail and responses from those who were interested.
“Does that make the university responsible? I think it does,” he said about the e-mails. He added that it may have actually been the University Alumni Association that supplied the driver, but has yet to determine that for sure.
Garbus’ assessment come just a day after the Menlo Park, Calif. Police Department announced it had finished its review of the accident without offering a finding of fault. Its report has been forward to the San Mateo County District Attorney’s office, which had no immediate comment on the incident.
“I think the D.A. won’t do anything,” Garbus said.
But Garbus said Jones’ actions could make him liable in a civil case of some kind, perhaps along with the university. “We are just starting to look into that,” he said. “I know a good deal of what happened.” He said, based on witnesses, he believes that Jones ran a red light and made an illegal left turn in front of a car that hit his car in the passenger side, killing Halberstam instantly.
Garbus said he did not know if Jean Halberstam would seek legal action against the driver or the university, although he thinks she will likely have good reason. “I would think that, in any other case, a client would take action,” he said. “I don’t know what Jean would do.” Jean Halberstam declined comment on any legal action.
Garbus also said it might depend on what kind of insurance the driver or the university might have in such a case. “I don’t know the extent of the insurance the university or the alumni foundation carries,” he said.
But no matter what the outcome, Garbus believes the incident will prompt other colleges and universities to change their practice of having students drive guests and other visitors. “Because of this, the practice of having students drive people from place to place will change dramatically,” he said. “I think it is going to stop.”
UPDATE: The San Francisco Chronicle reported on Saturday that Jean Halberstam had commented on colleges suggesting or providing drivers: “All universities and colleges must be looking at this policy and giving it serious second thoughts,” Jean Halberstam said. “We now realize what a dangerous thing that can be.”
The paper added: “Before the April 23 crash, Jones was involved in two accidents in the last two years, according to state Department of Motor Vehicles records. One was a multi-vehicle accident in March 2005 in Oakland in which Jones was determined to be the driver most at fault, according to DMV records. The other was in March 2006 in Berkeley and appeared to be minor, records show.
“Morris, the Infiniti driver, was involved in an accident in San Francisco in January 2006, DMV records show.”
Related E&P story: Halberstam’s Widow, Awaiting Word on Accident Probe, Recounts ‘Amazing’ Tributes to Him