An attorney for Bonner County insists county jail officials were only doing their duty when they permitted an alcoholic inmate to drive himself to the Alcohol Treatment Unit at Orofino.
Larry Dawson detoured on his way to Orofino from Sandpoint, and his pickup hit head-on a vehicle occupied by Grangeville couple Floyd and Betty Litchfield, court records say.All three survived the March 3, 1988 crash, but received serious injuries. Dawson had a blood-alcohol content of 0.34, more than triple the legal limit of 0.10, according to court documents.
The Litchfields sued Bonner County, alleging officials violated their duty to the public by not ensuring Dawson did not drive while under their control. A Lewiston jury trial began Tuesday, with 2nd District Judge E. B. Ponack presiding.
"There were two people who could have prevented those injuries from occurring. First of those was Larry Dawson," said Boise attorney James Davis, representing Bonner County, in opening remarks.
"The second person who has responsibility is Judge Heise. Judge Heise released Larry Dawson on the morning of March 3, 1988. That was her province," he added.
He was referring to Bonner County Magistrate Debra Heise, who ordered Dawson to attend a one-month alcohol treatment program at Orofino as part of his sentence. Dawson was to be given credit against his 60-day jail term for attending the program.
Davis said evidence shows the judge does not order Bonner County Jail personnel to transport people to Orofino because she believes county residents should not have to pay for it.
"The only way it (Bonner County) could have been responsible for this accident is if it disregarded Judge Heise's order," Davis said. "We conclude that we had no choice but to release Larry Dawson. We conclude that we couldn't transport Larry Dawson."
But Darrel Aherin, representing the Litchfields, said the county should take the responsibility and said the wreck was foreseeable.
Dawson was serving a jail term for driving while intoxicated. This was his fourth or fifth offense, he said.
Aherin said Dawson checked out of the jail at 6:30 a.m. on March 3. No one even called the Orofino treatment unit to say when Dawson had left, Aherin added. The wreck occurred at 3:30 p.m. near Lapwai.
"If you send an alcoholic to a place to dry out for 30 days . . . some 200 miles . . . unsupervised in his own vehicle, he is going to consume alcohol," Aherin said. "It's foreseeable that he is going to drink and drive, and he is going to have a wreck."
Some alternatives are taking a bus or having deputies or another person drive them, he said.
He estimated the Litchfields' loss of earning will be more than $200,000. The couple also is seeking medical and other damages.
The proceedings were expected to continue Thursday.