Parents File Lawsuit in Death of Construction Worker Killed in California

Former “CHIPS” star and motorcycle racing champion, Bruce Penhall and his wife, filed a wrongful death lawsuit in the death of their 21-year-old son.

Connor McDermott Penhall, 21-years-old, died at the scene of the crash on April 4, 2012, as he was working on Interstate 10 in Baldwin Park, where police say an Arcadia man drove through a construction zone, fatally striking him.

The wrongful death lawsuit names Caltrans, a contractor, the California Highway Patrol and Flatiron Construction Company as defendants. It alleges that employees of these three failed to follow proper safety procedures regarding freeway closures, requiring barricades to be placed across all lanes of closed traffic in order to stop vehicles from reaching the construction site.

Connor was working for Colorado-based Caltrans contractor Flatiron Construction Corp. when he was struck, officials said.

The alleged drunken driver, Tatsuhiko Sakamoto, 39, of Arcadia, was also named in the suit and is awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder, gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated, drunken driving causing injury and driving with a blood-alcohol level above .08, Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman said.

He is accused of being drunk when he drove right past cones, signs and CHP cars denoting a full freeway closure due to the planned road maintenance, according to CHP and state officials.  It is alleged that after he traveled approximately one mile through the closure, Sakamoto’s Toyota RAV4 struck Connor Penhall, as well as construction equipment.

According to county booking records, Sakomoto was being held in lieu of $1 million bail pending trial.

The Penhall family filed a wrongful death suit in Los Angeles County Superior Court against the Flatiron Construction Company, Caltrans and the CHP, claiming they did not take proper precautions on the freeway to protect Penhall’s safety.

According to the lawsuit, the closure was set up without the necessary barricades, which allowed the drunk driver to have an open path to the area while Connor Penhall was working. It also contends that CHP officers were not properly positioned in the construction zone.

Road crews closed lanes with road cones at Francisquito Avenue.  Just prior to midnight, Sakomoto drove through the construction zone and struck Penhall at 60 miles per hour, throwing Penhall 50-75 feet in the air. He died at the scene.

In the lawsuit, the victim’s family alleged Caltrans and road crews did not follow proper protocol to install the proper barricades.

It was alleged that Flatiron Construction began setting up the closure at 11:00 pm, while a CHP officer ran a traffic break to taper cones across all lanes for a complete freeway closure. The lawsuit states that Sakomoto ran over a single two-foot cone and did not face any additional barricades before striking Penhall.

The family contends that CHP officers assigned to the road project were not positioned at the front of the construction zone, but instead, about two miles away from where traffic was being diverted off the freeway, at Puente Avenue.

The victim’s family stated that there were no proper detour or lane-closure signs warning drivers of the road closure. Sakomoto drove about 3,500 feet from the road closure and the construction zone. Caltran’s “Standard Plan” requires barricades across all lanes and shoulders every 2,000 feet, according to the lawsuit.

Sakamoto has pleaded not guilty to the charges and was scheduled to appear in Pomona Superior Court on June 20th for a pretrial hearing.

He was initially only charged with gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated and the drunken driving charges, however, prosecutors added an additional charge of second-degree murder against Sakamoto at a December 19th hearing.

The family is seeking unspecified damages and payments.

Caltrans officials declined to comment on the lawsuit because it is a pending suit.

Conner Penhall’s father, Bruce Penhall, was the World Speedway Champion in 1981 and 1982 and also appeared in one season of the television series “CHIPS,” as well as films.

This 21-year-old was minding his business, doing his job when a drunk driver tragically took his life.  We will never know whether this accident could have been avoided if the proper barricades were in place or if the driver was too drunk to have seen them anyway. Maybe the additional barricades could have stopped the vehicle before it fatally hit this young guy.

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