Dara and David Johnson have been waiting a long time to see justice done in the case of a drunk driver who crashed into the back of Dara’s SUV while she was crossing the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway with their two teenagers on an April afternoon in 2012, injuring all three.
But their physical injuries, which the family says include orthopedic limitations and brain injuries, are not the only legacy of the crash caused by Lawrence Getz, a 72-year-old doctor who said he lived in North Carolina.
The family’s faith in the criminal justice system also was shattered, Dara Johnson told 22nd Judicial District Judge Reginald Badeaux in a sentencing hearing for Getz on Tuesday.
Getz was found guilty of three counts of first-degree vehicular negligent injuring, a felony, in January.
However, the Johnsons say they believe the case was rife with conflicts of interest that resulted in undeserved breaks for Getz at the expense of public safety.
The alleged conflicts involved the law firm that initially handled the Johnsons’ personal-injury lawsuit, then-District Attorney Walter Reed and the Greater New Orleans Expressway Commission, which manages the Causeway.
The same law firm represented the Causeway at the time and also did work for USAA Insurance, the company that insured Getz. Reed is “of counsel” with the firm — McCranie Sistrunk, Anzelmo, Hardy, Maxwell & McDaniel — a relationship that began while he was district attorney and that has raised questions in at least one other case.
Badeaux said Tuesday he felt he should apologize to the family for the fact that the wheels of justice grind slowly. He sentenced Getz to three consecutive five-year terms, one for each of the counts on which he was convicted. But Badeaux said he saw nothing to be gained by putting Getz behind bars and suspended the sentences, requiring him instead to serve five years of probation — all of it under home incarceration. Getz will be allowed to serve out the terms of his probation in North Carolina.
Dara Johnson, who made a victim-impact statement, told the court that her son Casey suffers seizures as a result of his injuries and her daughter Sadie is finding it hard to concentrate on school work.
“While today’s proceedings begin to re-establish some trust and faith in our justice system, I hope and pray that their experience will not foster skepticism and distrust in the leaders of our community as Casey and Sadie grow older,” she said.
Getz initially faced only minor traffic charges, including careless operation of a vehicle and driving with an expired license plate, and paid $409 in fines online without appearing in court.
The Johnsons said Assistant District Attorney Ronald Gracianette and Nick Congemi, the Causeway’s police chief, initially told them that the results of a blood alcohol test taken by Getz “fell through the cracks,” later saying they had been mailed to the wrong address.
However, a story about the case in The Times-Picayune in December quoted a State Police spokesman as saying the agency had stopped mailing such test results in 2011.
A State Police crime lab report showed that Getz had a blood-alcohol level of .21, two and a half times the legal limit. The Johnsons say that by the time he was tested at a hospital, more than two hours had elapsed since the wreck.
Dara Johnson, who has taught first grade for 33 years, told the court that she has tried to instill in her students the importance of character, truthfulness and responsibility. “After my experience with this accident, I have learned the undeniable fact that privileged people sometimes live in a world that operates on a different set of rules,” she said.
The Johnsons, who are suing Getz, say that they found out 10 months after the accident that McCranie Sistrunk also represents Getz’s insurance company. David Johnson said the company is a major client for the firm.
The couple said their lawyer told them it was not a big issue, but the Johnsons were troubled at his failure to disclose the information and decided a couple of weeks later to change lawyers.
It wasn’t until this summer that they learned, through a story in The New Orleans Advocate, that Reed also had a relationship with McCranie Sistrunk. Reed is “of counsel” with the firm, a connection that prompted him to recuse his office from prosecuting a truck driver who killed two women because McCranie Sistrunk was suing on behalf of their survivors.
That situation drew criticism on the basis that Reed chose to profit from civil litigation rather than carry out the duty of his elected office to prosecute criminal cases.
Reed also recused his office in the Getz case, but the Johnsons say that happened only at their insistence because they believed his relationship with the law firm was problematic. He did not do so until August 2014, roughly three months after The Advocate’s story about the case involving the truck driver.
The failure to pursue Getz for driving while intoxicated continues to trouble the family. A DWI conviction would have meant additional recoverable damages and increased the potential settlement in their suit, David Johnson said, and McCranie Sistrunk should have had a vested interest and fiduciary duty in seeing such an outcome when it was representing the Johnsons. The firm instead “appeared to have acted in the interest of parties other than the Johnson family,” David Johnson wrote in a summary of the case provided to The New Orleans Advocate.
The Johnsons also question why the Causeway police officer who arrived at the scene of the accident, Terry Guillory, didn’t identify Getz’s intoxication or note it in the official accident report, an omission that they call “alarming.”
Another motorist who helped the family out of their wrecked car had noticed Getz driving erratically and had called the Causeway Police prior to the crash, the Johnsons say.
Getz’s citation notes a blood-alcohol kit number at the bottom and says that Getz was “unable to sign” the citation.
Burgess McCranie, who was the lawyer for the Causeway at the time of the accident, did not return a message left Tuesday afternoon.
The Causeway Commission replaced the firm in June after a 10-year relationship. General Manager Carlton Dufrechou said the agency wanted a change, adding that the decision had nothing to do with the Getz case.
District Attorney Warren Montgomery, who took office in January, said his administration has made an independent analysis of the facts and circumstances of the Getz case. “I am satisfied that the criminal charge to which Mr. Getz pled and is awaiting sentencing was the correct resolution,” he said. “That charge carries a more severe penalty than driving while intoxicated.”
Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter, @spagonesadvocat.