Family-owned trucking company claims CHP was out to get them.
- Case Name: Stacey D. Wittler, Robert B. Watson v. Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of the California Highway Patrol, Sanford Fox, Michael Campoy, Jesus Soltero, Does 1 to 100.
- Court and Case Number: San Joaquin County Superior Court / STK-CV-UCR-2013-0005760
- Date of Verdict or Judgment: Tuesday, December 19, 2017
- Date Action was Filed: Friday, June 07, 2013
- Type of Case: Interference with Prospective Economic Advantage
- Judge or Arbitrator(s): Hon. Xapuri Villapudua
Plaintiffs: Robert Watson and Stacy Wittler, husband and wife
Defendants: Department of Motor Vehicles, Department of the California Highway Patrol, Sanford Fox, Michael Campoy, Jesus Soltero, Does 1 to 10
- Type of Result: Jury Verdict
- Gross Verdict or Award: $268,000 plus $79,974.14 interest
- Net Verdict or Award: $347,974.14
Award as to each Defendant: Sanford Fox, as an employee of CHP, was found 100% liable. CHP is liable because they employed Fox.Michael Campoy was found not liable.Jesus Soltero was dismissed via non-suit after plaintiffs presented their case.
- Contributory/Comparative Negligence: None.
$268,000 - lost profits
- Trial or Arbitration Time: 10 days.
- Jury Deliberation Time: 3 days.
- Post Trial Motions & Post-Verdict Settlements: Dual cost bills; defendants have filed a pending motion for new trial and JNOV.
Attorney for the Plaintiff:
SADIQ LAW FIRM PC by Shafeeq Sadiq, Stockton.
Law Office of Clarence K. Chan by Cristal Ruiz, Stockton.
Attorney for the Defendant:
Office of the Attorney General by Rohit Kodical and Wilfred T. Fong, Oakland.
Plaintiff's Technical Expert(s):
Steven M. Hoslett, CPA/CFF, CFE, San Diego.
Defendant's Technical Expert(s):
Craig M. Enos, CPA, Folsom.
Facts and Background
Facts and Background:
Plaintiffs, Stacy D. Wittler and Robert Watson, husband and wife, are the owners of Watson Brothers Trucking, a small, family-owned business specializing in the interstate and intrastate hauling of chemicals. Robert Watson is a second-generation trucker, and Watson Brothers Trucking was named for his three sons, who are also truck drivers. Watson Bros. Trucking, like all commercial motor carriers, is required to be enrolled in the California Highway Patrol's "Biennel Inspection of Terminals" (BIT) program, enacted by the California Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1988 and codified in California Vehicle Code Section 34501.12.
These inspections of the vehicles and records were to be performed at the at the Watson Brothers Trucking terminal. As a result of a scheduling error on the part of the CHP, Watson Brothers Trucking was not enrolled in the BIT program, and did not have a BIT inspection until 2012. When the scheduling error was discovered in April 2012, CHP motor carrier specialist Sanford Fox directed CHP inspector Michael Campoy to conduct a BIT inspection of the Watson Brothers terminal located at the Watson Family Home. This inspection took place on May 8, 2012, when Mr. Campoy arrived at the Watson terminal and inspected two truck tractors and two trailers with Robert Watson. Mr. Campoy testified that he felt that Mr. Watson, an African-American, had an “attitude” with regards to the inspection. It was during the course of this inspection that Mr. Campoy determined Mr. Watson’s tire to be flat by “thumping” the tire with a pair of pliers. When Mr. Campoy didn’t like the sound the tire made, he placed the vehicle “out of service.” This “out of service,” along with additional violations on a truck that was not being operated, resulted in the DMV suspending the Watson Brothers Trucking motor vehicle permit from intrastate hauling for 30 days from July 30, 2012 to August 28, 2012.
Plaintiff Mr. Watson simultaneously requested an administrative hearing to challenge the suspension and requested a reinstatement inspection in case the administrative hearing was unsuccessful. At the administrative hearing, both Sanford Fox and Michael Campoy both testified that “tire thumping” was “industry standard” in determining whether or not a tire was flat. However, the administrative judge ruled that “tire thumping” is an invalid method for determining tire pressure and that there was insufficient evidence to support a factual finding that petitioner's tire was flat. The suspension was expunged, but not until after plaintiffs served all 30 days of their suspension from intrastate hauling. During the 30-day inspection, Watson Brothers Trucking continued to haul interstate.
Early in the morning of August 6, 2012, after the administrative hearing was requested and while the 30-day suspension was still in effect, Mr. Fox and Mr. Campoy paid an unannounced visit to the Watson family home/terminal for a “reinstatement inspection.” Since Mr. Watson was given no warning of the reinstatement inspection, he told both Mr. Fox and Mr. Campoy to “get the fuck off” his property.
After being kicked off the Watson property, Mr. Fox and Mr. Campoy met on the side of the road and decided to make a surprise visit to Watson Brothers Trucking’s primary customer, Sierra Chemical, under the guise of completing the reinstatement inspection. At the time of this surprise visit, Sierra Chemical and Watson Brothers Trucking had been working together for over 20 years and in fact, loads from Sierra Chemical constituted over 75% of Watson Brothers trucking’s business. Given the relationship between Sierra Chemical and Watson Brothers Trucking, Sierra Chemical even allowed the three Watson children to drive intrastate, under Sierra’s motor carrier permit, during Watson Brothers’ 30 days' suspension.
During the surprise visit, Sanford Fox told Sierra Chemical that they could not use Watson Brothers trucking for any purposes during the suspension, including interstate hauling. Mr. Fox testified that at the time he made this statement, he knew that Watson Brothers Trucking actually was able to legally drive interstate as that was within the jurisdiction of the federal DOT, not the California Highway Patrol. Mr. Fox also testified that he told a Sierra Chemical Corporate officer that Sierra Chemical could not use Watson Brothers Trucking as a motor carrier until they could produce a new motor carrier permit. Sanford Fox also testified that he initiated a complaint with the California Highway Patrol when he found out that the Watson brothers were driving Sierra Chemical’s vehicles without being on their payroll. He sent Jesus Soltero to inspect Sierra Chemical’s driver records.
Around the same time, Sierra Chemical vehicles began to be routinely stopped at various scales throughout the State of California, and their drivers were being asked if they were a Watson employee. One former Sierra driver even testified that after being stopped, he overheard someone tell the CHP officer “that’s not a Watson, let him go.” These stops led to inconvenience and delays for Sierra Chemical. A meeting was then called between three people: Sanford Fox, the general manager of Sierra Chemical, and Sierra Chemical’s head dispatcher. Both former Sierra employees testified that Sanford Fox told them that it would be in Sierra Chemicals' “best interest” if they stopped using Watson Brothers Trucking. Shortly thereafter, Sierra Chemical terminated its 20-year relationship with Watson Brothers Trucking.
Plaintiffs alleged defendants conspired against them in order to interfere with their business relationship with Sierra Chemicals.
Defendants argued that under Government Code sections 818.6, 821.4 and 821.6, they were immune from liability for inspections and investigations related to the DMV’s suspension of plaintiffs’ motor carrier permit. Defendants asserted (and plaintiffs testified) that plaintiffs suffered no damages as a result of the suspension as plaintiffs continued to operate during the suspension period.
Also, it was illegal for Sierra Chemical to use Robert Watson’s sons as drivers as Mr. Watson’s sons had not gone through the proper authorization process required for what is called a “safety sensitive” function (delivery of hazardous chemicals). Sierra’s witnesses admitted that the arrangement was illegal. It was this arrangement that prompted Fox’s complaint against Sierra, Jesus Soltero’s inspection of records and CHP’s questioning of Sierra drivers at designated inspection points.
Defendants further contended that their actions did not cause Sierra to stop doing business with Watson Bros. Trucking. That decision was made by Sierra’s parent company, Carus Corporation. Sierra’s former general manager (and friend of the plaintiffs) testified that Carus terminated the business relationship with Watson Bros. due to its lack of safety as indicated by Watson Bros.’ Department of Transportation rating.
Injuries and Other Damages
Physical Injuries claimed by Plaintiff:
Plaintiffs claimed lost profits due to the termination of their relationship with Sierra Chemical.
- Special Damages Claimed - Past Lost Earnings: $700,000