COVINGTON — A St. Tammany Parish jury resolved an extended legal battle on Jan. 11 when it awarded about $1.3 million in punitive and actual damages to victims of a drunk-driving accident.
According to a report on NOLA.com, on April 3, 2012, Dr. Lawrence Getz rear-ended a vehicle containing Dara Johnson and her two children while driving on the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. When police took Getz’s blood-alcohol content, according to state-police records it registered at 0.21 percent, which is well over the state limit.
But as criminal proceedings against Getz ensued, complications soon arose.
In the 2012 criminal trial, then-District Attorney Walter Reed's office decided to pursue only two traffic citations, to which Getz pleaded guilty. When asked why Getz’s inebriation was not addressed, an official for Reed’s office said that it was not feasible as the records of Getz’s blood-alcohol test had “slipped through the cracks,” according to a Times-Picayune report.
“(In instances of drunk driving) officers are required to submit two reports to two state entities: the state of Louisiana and to the district attorney’s office … the state and the district attorney’s office should have had ample notice,” Peter Russell, an attorney and former police officer with nearly 1,000 DWI arrests, told the Louisiana Record.
In 2014, Reed recused himself and handed the case to the Louisiana attorney general’s office. Prosecutors presented the case to a grand jury, which indicted Getz on vehicular negligent injury charges. In January 2015, Getz pleaded guilty to the criminal charges. Judge Reginald Badeaux II placed him on five years' home incarceration, gave him a suspended prison sentence and fined him $6,000. Badeaux also ordered that Getz donate $10,000 to Mothers Against Drunk Driving of Louisiana.
Despite the renewed case against Getz, no DWI charges were filed, as documents alleging he was drunk were not available. This, again, threw doubt on to Reed’s office.
“BAC is required to be listed as part of the allegations, especially if you’re talking about negligent injuring of other individuals,” Russell said.
Following the criminal proceedings, the Johnson family filed a civil suit against Getz. Johnson said that the degree of leniency Getz received in avoiding DWI charges and the effect it had on her children psychologically and physically was what prompted the case. However, their civil action also encountered roadblocks.
The original firm the Johnsons hired — McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, McDaniel and Welch — handled the case for 10 months. After being informed that the firm worked with Getz’s insurance company, United Services Automobile Association, as one of its featured clients, the Johnsons took their case to New Orleans firms Scandurro and Layrisson and Mathews and Warriner.
The significance was not lost on the Johnsons when they were outraged to discover that Reed — who was convicted in 2016 on corruption charges that were unrelated — was "of counsel" with McCranie, Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, McDaniel and Welch, according to the NOLA.com report. The Johnsons later found out the firm also had a contract with the Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission, the formal name of the Causeway Commission that operates the bridge.
While Reed’s true motivations will likely remain uncertain, Russell has his concerns.
“District attorneys love high enforcement because they can tout that to the public and keep getting re-elected,” he said. “It makes you wonder, how could they miss this one, if they catch so many others.”