Ian Parkinson: Witness for hire
October 5, 2010
San Luis Obispo County Sheriff candidate Ian Parkinson’s testimony as an expert witness in a 2000 civil case helped his sister-in-law Rita Tavernetti collect a $1.4 million dollar settlement, causing some to question Parkinson’s ethics.
By his own account, Parkinson, currently a captain with the San Luis Obispo Police Department, has testified as an expert accident reconstructionist in more than 200 cases over the past 18 years.
In the Tavernetti case, Parkinson was paid $150 per hour for a total of about $6,000 to investigate the accident and testify in support of his sister-in-law’s quest for damages.
A review of the court transcripts by CalCoastNews shows that Parkinson failed to publicly reveal his relationship to Tavernetti during 108 pages of testimony. In addition, even though Parkinson has testified that he has owned and run an accident reconstruction business for 18 years, he does not appear to have a San Luis Obispo city business license as required by the city’s municipal code.
Also, in order to conduct investigations for trials not associated with his job as a peace officer, Parkinson is required by law to be a licensed private investigator, according to the California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services. Failure to acquire a valid private investigator license is a violation of the California Business and Professions Code. Parkinson does not have a private investigator’s license, according to state regulators.
In 2000, Parkinson testified in a jury trial in which his sister-in-law was seeking monetary damages after her father died in a freak accident. Parkinson testified that both an eyewitness and a California Highway Patrol officer’s accounts of the crash were flawed, leading the way for his sister-in-law to collect a large award.
Nevertheless, Parkinson failed to mention to the jury or the judge that one of the plaintiffs, Tavernetti, was his sister-in-law.
“Obviously, at some stage, somebody needs to determine fault in the collision,” Parkinson testified in the 2000 civil trial, according to the transcripts. “Many times, both parties don’t know who is at fault and they need somebody, an impartial person on the outside, to look at the issues to determine fault.”
Parkinson did not return requests for comment.
While testifying, Parkinson noted that he was a San Luis Obispo Police Officer who had spent a significant amount of his time responding to traffic accidents.
A leading group in determining standards for law enforcement ethics – the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute on Ethics – contends it is not ethical for Parkinson to conduct an investigation and testify as an expert witness for a family member while serving as a police officer.
“Using his name, title, and credibility to garner a huge payout for his sister-in-law is a clear violation of avoiding the appearance of a conflict of interest,” said Mike Carpenter, the Josephson Institute on Ethics director of risk management services. “It takes a lot of brass to say there is nothing wrong with giving testimony when his sister-in-law is a litigant.”
More than 10 years ago, Tavernetti’s father, Ted McCormack, was driving southbound on a road that ran parallel to Highway 101 in King City, according to court records, with a blood alcohol level of 0.23 percent.
A truck pulling a trailer loaded with irrigation pipes was headed northbound when the trailer disconnected and angled into McCormack’s lane. He swerved to the right onto the dirt shoulder and clipped the trailer. The impact dislodged a pipe which broke through McCormack’s front window and pierced his head, killing him, according to the CHP traffic report.
When officers arrived, they found the trailer and the roadway littered with pipe. But neither of the two trucks described by an eyewitness were present. One of the officers was leaving the scene, going south on Central Avenue, when he noticed a set of headlights streaming in the night sky from an irrigation pond about 1,300 feet from the accident site. The officer discovered McCormack and his truck at the bottom of the pond.
The only witness to the accident, Cheryl Coppos, told police that McCormack was driving about 35 miles per hour, swerved to the right onto the dirt shoulder, hit the trailer and continued on, according to the California Highway Patrol incident report.
The CHP officer at the scene determined gouge marks in the dirt and skid marks found on the road showed that the accident occurred on the shoulder of the roadway which also backed up the eyewitness’ statement. Both the CHP officer and the eyewitness’ statements supported the argument that if McCormack had not been so intoxicated the accident could have been avoided.
Nevertheless, Parkinson testified that the skid marks were likely made at another time, that the point of impact the CHP documented was wrong, and that the witness’ account of the accident was incorrect.
San Luis Obispo-based attorney and friend of Parkinson, James Murphy, was hired by Parkinson’s sister-in-law to file the lawsuit. Both Parkinson and Murphy began conducting their own investigation at the scene within 10 days of the accident.
Tavernetti put up fliers asking for witnesses to contact Murphy if they had information on the accident and offered a $5,000 reward. For more than a year no one came forward.
Shortly before a scheduled hearing, Murphy agreed to a $5,000 nuisance settlement to be paid by G&H Farms, the owners of the trailer. However, before the settlement was paid and more than a year after the accident, Matthew Hayes, an ex-boyfriend of Tavernetti, came forward with claims that he had passed McCormack shortly before the accident and noticed a white Ford truck towing a trailer loaded with pipes belonging to G&H Farms going the other way.
Hayes claimed that McCormack was driving faster than the eyewitness had reported, which concurred with Parkinson’s assertions that McCormack had no time to brake or veer and possibly avoid hitting the trailer. According to court records, the reward for information had been raised to $100,000 at the time Hayes came forward.
Frank Cunningham, the attorney who defended G&H Farms, passed away a few years ago. His former partner, Bill Gavin, said Cunningham believed his clients were not responsible for the accident and was very unhappy with the outcome of the trial. Murphy claims he disclosed the fact that Parkinson was Tavernetti’s brother-in-law to Cunningham, who he said felt it was not an issue.
However, the attorney who sat second chair, Jennifer Moon, and the private investigator who worked for Cunningham both said they thought Cunningham would have mentioned the relationship in cross-examination.
“It was a horrible case,” said Greg Deitz, a private investigator who often worked for Cunningham. “Frank would have gone ballistic if he knew about Parkinson.” Murphy also said expert witnesses often testify for friends or family.
Murphy used at least one other expert witness in the case. Steve Blewett, a mechanical engineering expert from San Jose, who is also an auto reconstructionist, testified before the jury about how the trailer disconnected from the truck.
When contacted by CalCoastNews, Blewett said he would not testify for a family member or friend because of the appearance of impropriety and laughed when he learned Parkinson was related to the plaintiff.
CalCoastNews also spoke with a half dozen collision experts who all said they would not testify for a friend or a relative because of the potential conflict of interest and appearance of impropriety.
“I wouldn’t be involved in a case with someone that was even an acquaintance,” said Bard Johnson, an expert collision witness. “I have had to recuse myself twice. One was a neighbor of mine and the other was related to someone I know.”
In addition, Murphy claimed Parkinson’s testimony was very limited. However, a copy of Parkinson’s testimony provided by the court recorder is 108 pages long.
Parkinson has used his official position to testify in hundreds of cases for financial gain, according to Parkinson’s testimony. “I have actually two occupations,” Parkinson said. “I’m a police officer, been a police officer for about 17 years; and I’m also an accident reconstructionist.
“Sometimes it’s full time,” Parkinson said when questioned about the amount of time he works as an expert witness for hire.