Family Settles with Hit-and-Run Driver, But Civil Case Against Cab Company Continues

By Lara Cooper

Santa Barbara Noozhawk

January 7, 2014

A Murrietta man who pleaded guilty to hit-and-run charges after striking and killing a young Santa Barbara man on Highway 101 last year has settled a civil lawsuit with his family.

Simon Chavez

However, the case against the cab company who let the young man out of its vehicle before he died will continue toward a jury trial later this year.

Simon Chavez, 22, a former Santa Barbara High School baseball coach, was found just after 1 a.m. Jan. 15, 2013, on the southbound freeway lanes near the Ortega Street footbridge after several witnesses reported he had been staggering in traffic before he was struck.

The Coroner’s Office later released toxicology results that showed Chavez had a blood alcohol concentration of .256, more than three times the point at which a driver would be considered drunk under state law.

Lau Van Huynh, who was driving the vehicle and did not stop after striking the young man, pleaded guilty to felony hit-and-run and hit-and-run with fatal injuries in March.

Van Huynh and two of his family members, as well as the cab company driving Chavez home from a bar the evening of his death, were listed on a lawsuit after Chavez’s family decided to sue for negligence and wrongful death.

Absolute Cab LLC, Thomas Rhyne, the taxi driver and Joshua Klein, the owner and operator of the company, are all listed on the lawsuit as defendants.

On Monday, Judge Colleen Sterne ruled that the Huynh family must pay $30,000, the full amount of their insurance policy as a settlement with the family. The family has no other assets, and the insurance policy amount was a reasonable settlement, she said.

The family’s attorney, Leila Noël of the law firm of Cappello & Noël, told Noozhawk that they will continue to move the case forward against the cab company, and “we think we have a very strong case against them.

“We believe the cab and driver are hugely responsible,” she said. “Simon never would have been in the situation but for what the cab company did.”

The complaint filed in Superior Court last year describes the hours leading up to Chavez’s death, and begins by stating that Chavez met up with a group of friends at the Uptown Lounge on State Street, where he became intoxicated.

Just after midnight, the bartender called Absolute Cab, and Rhyne arrived to pick Chavez up at 12:30 a.m.

A friend of Chavez’s paid Rhyne $20 to take him to his Cota Street home, and Rhyne acknowledged that the amount would be enough for the trip.

“By doing so, Rhyne, as an agent for Absolute Cab, assumed a duty to safely transport Chavez to his final destination,” the complaint states.

Chavez asked the driver how to open the cab, door indicating he would be sick, and got out of the vehicle.

The complaint said the driver observed Chavez stumble backward as he walked away, and Rhyne left the area without calling for help.

The complaint states that Chavez walked west on Carrillo Street, then turned left onto the southbound ramp, where he was struck by Van Huynh on the highway.

Attorney Rob Bergsten, who is representing Absolute Cab, did not respond to a request for comment this week, but told Noozhawk last year that his client acted appropriately, saying that forcing Chavez back into the cab could constitute false imprisonment.

Noel said the trial date will be set toward the end of 2014 at the latest.

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