A Laguna Beach physician pled guilty to two misdemeanor charges of vehicular manslaughter in a head-on crash that killed two landscapers four years ago.
Robert McFarland Pettis this week reversed himself after initially pleading not guilty to two felony charges of manslaughter with gross negligence in Orange County Superior Court in 2014. The felony charges were also dismissed Monday, Oct. 16.
Pettis, a surgeon and specialist in hearing and balance disorders, was sentenced to three years probation, 240 hours of community service and restitution in the deadly crash, court records show.
“We offered what we did to the defendant after carefully reviewing all of the evidence and evaluating the likelihood of success at trial in the felony vs. the misdemeanor,” Senior Deputy District Atty. Whitney Bokosky wrote in an email Monday. “We also considered the desires of the victims’ family members.”
Four relatives spoke during the sentencing, said defense attorney Paul S. Meyer, of Costa Mesa, rendered by Judge Gregg Prickett.
“The thorough review by the prosecution included defense facts that there were several other significant causes of this accident by a third car as well as dangerous roadway design, all set forth in civil suits by the families,” said Meyer, who described Pettis as having expressed sorrow from the beginning. “He immediately leapt out of his car to render first aid to the other people, ignoring his own injuries,” Meyer said.
The prosecutor accused Pettis of speeding, crossing the double yellow lines and driving into oncoming traffic on April 2, 2013, when filing criminal charges after the months-long investigation.
The 6:40 a.m. collision killed driver Alberto Casique-Salinas, 47, of Anaheim and his passenger Armondo Garcia Gonzales, of Santa Ana, who were en route to their jobs as gardeners for Stewart’s Landscaping in Laguna Beach.
Pettis still faces a civil lawsuit, which is set to go to trial in April, said Otto Haselhoff, a Santa Monica attorney. He represents six relatives of Casique-Salinas, many of whom live in Yecapixtla, Mexico, court records show.
The identity of a second driver, also a physician, involved in the collision emerged in the civil lawsuit, which was filed in 2014. Podiatrist and surgeon Dekker Nolan McKeever, who records show is no longer is licensed in California, and Pettis were named as defendants in the complaint as well as seven public entities, including the city of Laguna Beach and its water district, Caltrans and car dealers, court records show.
Haseloff declined to say how Pettis’ plea could influence his case.
In criminal restitution, an estate can seek funeral expenses and projected loss of earnings, said criminal defense attorney Barry Simons, who is not involved in the case. Payouts by insurers would be credited towards restitution.
In the civil action, plaintiffs can seek restitution for pain and suffering as well, he said.
Simons could only speculate as to why the prosecutor was unable to prove the higher standard of gross negligence and imposed the lesser charge. “At the end of the day, they could not prove it,” he said. Thorough accident reconstruction helps prosecutors determine a motorist’s level of culpability, he said.