Conflicting Cause-of-Death Theories in San Francisco Vehicular Manslaughter Trial

A driver flicks a cigarette butt out of the window of their car, which ignites a pile of dry leaves on the front lawn of a single-family residence. Embers from the fire are blown onto the front porch of the house, which then catches fire. The fire department arrives but inadvertently sprays accelerant on the fire instead of water. The house burns to the ground.

Who, ultimately, is at fault? There would have been no fire at all were it not for the cigarette butt and the carelessness of the driver. But if the fire department arrived in time and then made the problem worse, not better, what is their ultimate responsibility?

James Harris, a San Francisco city worker, was driving a car registered to the Department of Public Health when he struck and killed wheelchair-bound, 38-year-old Thu Phan on February 5, 2016. He did so while attempting to make a left turn from a restricted lane reserved for buses, taxis, and bicyclists. Phan was in the crosswalk at the time of the accident.

Thrown from her wheelchair, Phan broke both legs and multiple ribs. The accident also caused her brain to start bleeding.

Prosecutor Kara Lacy told jurors that due to his negligent driving, Harris was to blame. “That negligence is what caused Ms. Phan’s brain to bleed and what caused her to pass away.”

Public Defender Dana Drusinsky suggested otherwise. Phan weighed 52 pounds and was less than three feet tall due to osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder. Drusinsky says that the treating hospital, San Francisco General, took a serious but non-fatal injury and made it much worse. “Everyone thought she would be okay,” said Drusinsky. “There was no indication that she would pass away.”

Drusinsky contended that while receiving treatment at San Francisco General, Phan was given intravenous fluids in amounts far too great for someone of her size. And regardless of the genesis of her injuries, she would not have died if her medical care had been competent.

“The accident didn’t kill her, but the gross medical negligence in the hospital did,” Drusinsky said.

In February 2017, Pham’s parents settled a wrongful death suit with the city for $2.9M.