judge sides with family in dershowitz traffic-death case News

| 13 Apr 2015 | 04:19

A Manhattan federal-court judge has sided with the family of a woman killed in a high-profile traffic-death case, provoking sharp criticism of District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. from the woman’s husband.

Marilyn Dershowitz, the sister-in-law of famed trial lawyer Alan Dershowitz, was struck and killed by a postal service truck in 2011 while riding her bike in Chelsea with her husband, Nathan.

Vance’s office pursued a criminal case against the truck driver, for leaving the scene of the accident, but lost that case in 2012 after less than a day of jury deliberation. Nathan Dershowitz then filed a civil wrongful-death case against the U.S. government – because the truck driver was a federal employee – and sought $17 million in damages.

Last week, Judge Sarah Netburn ruled in favor of Marilyn Dershowitz’s family, saying the driver, Ian Clement, “was negligent in his operation of his vehicle, causing the accident and her death.” The judge rejected government claims that Ms. Dershowitz’s handling of her bicycle was partly to blame for the accident. “The Court finds the government 100% liable,” Judge Netburn wrote in her ruling.

The decision – essentially a civil version of what the family had hoped to achieve in a criminal case -- renewed criticism of the DA’s handling of traffic deaths in the city. Victims’ families have long complained about what they see as Vance’s reticence to pursue such cases, pointing to the fact that fewer than 7 percent of drivers in fatal crashes in the city are even ticketed, and only a tiny fraction – usually those driving drunk – face any criminal charges.

Nathan Dershowitz, in a telephone interview after last week’s decision, said he’s convinced that Vance’s office mishandled his wife’s criminal case.

“I suggest that Cy Vance read the civil decision and I dare him to suggest that there isn’t overwhelming material in that decision that would suggest a criminal conviction here,” said Dershowitz, who, like his brother, is a lawyer in Manhattan. “The criminal case was reluctantly brought and was assigned to someone who had no knowledge of how to cross-examine a witness.”

Asked for comment on the civil decision and on Dershowitz’ comments, a spokeswoman for Vance forwarded a copy of the statement issued by the DA following the not-guilty verdict in the criminal case. “We will continue to file charges where we believe the evidence merits them,” the statement read, “and do everything we can as an office to make our streets safer for everyone.”

Nathan and Marilyn Dershowitz had been married 48 years at the time of the accident, meeting as children at summer camp when she was 13 and he was 12. They married in college and had two children. On the July 4th weekend in 2011, they left their home in Tudor City, and rode their bikes to Manhattan’s West Side. Marilyn was struck after crossing Ninth Avenue on 29th Street, and died shortly after arriving at the hospital.

In the most recent opinion, the judge ordered the government to cover the cost of Marilyn Dershowitz’s funeral and burial expenses, awarded her children $25,000 each, and ordered her estate to be paid $300,000 for her pain and suffering. As for the rest of the monetary reward that her family had sought, the judge said the Dershowitz family was owed money for Ms. Dershowitz’s lost wages and other income, and ordered the two sides to submit their final calculation of what that would be within 14 days.

Nathan Dershowitz said the financial award was never the point of the civil case.

“My overwhelming concern was that I did not want any suggestion that Marilyn was in any way responsible,” he said. “This was done for the catharsis that I needed and the family needed.”

Asked whether the decision finally gives him that catharsis, nearly four years after his wife’s death, Dershowitz said, “Yes, it does.”