City worker acquitted in pedestrian death

A former driver for a San Francisco health clinic was found not guilty of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter Tuesday afternoon in the death of a woman in a wheelchair who he fatally struck in the crosswalk at Seventh and Market streets nearly two years ago.

James Harris, a 69-year-old Antioch resident who drove for The City’s South of Market Mental Health Services, was charged following the Feb. 5, 2016 death of Thu Thi Phan.

Phan, a 38-year-old Berkeley resident who worked for the U.S. Department of Labor, was crossing Market Street at Seventh Street when Harris struck her as he turned left on to Market from a red bus lane around 9:50 a.m.

Prosecutor Kara Lacy argued that Harris was guilty of negligence in failing to see and stop for Phan, and presented witnesses in the case who testified that Harris was driving “aggressively” before the crash.

Videos presented during the trial showed him making an illegal left turn from the bus lane, entering the intersection without stopping and trying to cut off a male pedestrian who entered the crosswalk from the south side, Lacy said.

Defense attorney Dana Drusinsky, however, argued that Harris had driven in a normal manner and stopped quickly when he saw Phan. She placed some of the blame on Phan in closing arguments, saying she had entered the intersection shortly before the light turned red at a speed of 6 mph, making it difficult for Harris to anticipate her actions.

Drusinsky today said she was relieved, and thought the jurors had reached the right verdict:

“There was no evidence that he did anything a reasonable person wouldn’t do. … This was just a series of tragedies that led to this situation, it wasn’t a crime.”

Drusinsky had also presented evidence during the case suggesting that Phan, who suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta and was only three feet tall and 50 pounds, had been treated improperly at San Francisco General Hospital. However, a medical examiner’s report found that she died of blunt force trauma rather than any medical malpractice.

Juror Don Henvick, a retired mailman, said the jury had not considered Phan’s medical treatment to be a significant factor in the case.

Rather, Henvick said, the decision came down to whether the prosecution had proved negligence:

“We were all mostly of the opinion that he might have been somewhat negligent but it didn’t rise to the level of overcoming reasonable doubt.”

Prosecutors today declined to comment in detail on the verdict.

Max Szabo, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office said:

“The circumstances around this woman’s death are certainly tragic, but we respect the jury’s decision.”

The death of Phan, an activist who worked for disability rights, prompted calls from pedestrian safety and disability advocacy groups for safety improvements at the busy Market Street intersection where she was hit.

The City has since improved signage at that intersection to clarify who is allowed to use the red bus lane for left turns and changed some traffic lights in the area to give pedestrians more of a head start in the crosswalk. The City is also working on a larger plan to improve pedestrian safety on that section of Market Street.

Phan’s family settled a civil lawsuit against The City in March 2017 for $2.875 million.