By Julia Prodis Sulek
Posted: 10/08/2009 06:49:36 PM PDT
Updated: 10/08/2009 10:30:26 PM PDT
Karen Clarkson boxed up every letter her daughter sent her, every photo she kept, every medal her daughter won, every telephone record of their conversations. Then she handed them over to Santa Clara County to prove how much they loved each other.
After lawyers and insurance adjusters sifted through the four cardboard boxes, the county decided how much: $1.2 million.
That was the legal settlement the county announced Thursday for the death of Clarkson’s daughter, Kristy Gough. Gough and Matt Peterson were killed while cycling along Stevens Canyon Road in Cupertino when a sheriff’s deputy fell asleep behind the wheel and drifted across the roadway, striking them.
Gough was 30 and a world-class athlete when she was killed in March 2008. A third cyclist was injured but recovered.
When Clarkson first met with county lawyers two weeks after her daughter’s death, they said they were sorry for her loss and asked if there was anything she’d like to say.
“I couldn’t speak,” Clarkson said. “I broke down crying. What could I say?”
As is standard in wrongful death cases, they asked for evidence of the damages. Clarkson went into her daughter’s old room and began pulling trophies off the shelves. As she filled the boxes, she read the cards her daughter had written her over the years. “Thank you for always being there for me,” one of them read. “You always made me feel loved and protected.”
Clarkson remembers trying to make sense of this heartbreaking task.
“I felt like I am so happy and proud to have all these things from my daughter that are so personal to me,” she said. “And now I have to show them to people who only see money in them?”
Going through those treasures, she said, was “almost like dying a second time. Here, the most precious thing has overnight just senselessly been taken away from you. Then you have to show people how much you loved each other to make it important. I don’t think I’ll ever get over it.”
Acting County Counsel Miguel Marquez said he could “only imagine” what Clarkson went through. Nonetheless, he said, the contents of the boxes “helped value the settlement and aided our ability to resolve the case.”
There was never any doubt that the county would take responsibility. It was just a matter of whether the damages would be settled in or out of court.
Just days after the crash, Santa Clara County Sheriff Laurie Smith admitted that the county was responsible for the crash and, through tears, said she was “more than sorry” for the deaths of the two riders.
The deputy behind the wheel, 28-year-old James “Tommy” Council was sentenced in August to four months under house arrest and 20 weeks of community service after pleading guilty to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. Smith had already demoted him to a civilian job with less pay.
Peterson’s family recently settled with the county for $2.3 million. And Gough’s father, Rip Gough, hasn’t settled yet with the county. A Nov. 3 trial date is scheduled.
Clarkson said she is happy that she won’t have to drag the boxes of memories into court. Instead, they are back at home in San Leandro now, on the floor of her daughter’s room, which has barely been touched since Gough died. While the boxes were away, though, Clarkson held close other things that she never sent to the county: locks of her daughter’s hair, baby clothes and the Raggedy Ann doll that she made for her daughter. She had even drawn a heart — in red marker — on the doll’s chest and written, “I love you, Kristy.”
“That’s special to me,” she said. “It doesn’t mean anything to them.”