'No negligence' in four carbon monoxide deaths

Family members were seeking $11.5 million

Tiffany TuellJune 5, 2013 

A Madera County Superior Court jury found LaDonna and William DiFiore were not negligent in the deaths of four people who died of carbon monoxide poisoning during the late hours of Jan. 15, 2011, in an Oakhurst home. Family members of those who died were seeking $11.5 million in a wrongful death suit against the DiFiore's, who are also relatives of the deceased.

The DiFiores were the owners of the home on Royal Oaks Drive in Oakhurst where LaDonna's half-sister, Diana Montoya, 60, Diana's granddaughters, Alexis Montoya, 10, and Jayden Montoya, 8, and Diana's son, Bruce Hargett, 35, all died from carbon monoxide poisoning. The carbon monoxide poisoning was caused by a generator that was being used in the house for electricity. The children's mother, Marina Montoya, who also lived at that address, survived.

According to court documents, the four deceased family members, along with Marina, had lived in the home rent-free since Spring 2007. Bonnie Dotson, mother of Diana and LaDonna, had lived there since 2005. Her son and daughter-in-law, Tim and Penny Smith, also lived there and paid rent from 2005 until 2010 when they moved out. Two months after the Smiths moved away, Dotson moved in with the DiFiore's.

However, the home's PG&E account remained in Dotson's name, and the billl eventually surpassed $2,000. According to reports, Dotson told LaDonna about the predicament and they decided to take Dotson's name off the PG&E account.

On Dec. 31, 2010, according to court records, LaDonna called PG&E and said she was Dotson. Gordon Park, who represented the DiFiores along with lawyer Chris Lozano, said LaDonna acted as though she was Dotson in the interest of helping her mother. LaDonna originally handed the phone to Dotson, but Dotson told LaDonna she didn't want to talk. So, when PG&E asked for personal identification information, LaDonna would ask Dotson for the information and relay it on to PG&E.

On Jan. 12, LaDonna again called PG&E saying she was Dotson and asked why the power had not yet been cut off. While on the phone, LaDonna set a password for the account and asked that the power be shut off.

On Jan. 13, a PG&E fieldman went to the home and knocked on the door but no one answered. Per the request, he proceeded to shut off power to the house and while doing so, testified that someone drove away from the house, even though no one had answered the door when he rang. Later that day, Diana went to LaDonna's home to talk to Dotson. Together, they made five calls to PG&E. PG&E finally agreed to turn the power back on if Diana came into the office. PG&E requested she bring in a deposit of $140, which Dotson provided her with. According to a court report, LaDonna then offered that the whole family stay at her home until the power came back on, but the offer was not accepted.

The following day, Friday, Jan. 14, is what Park says is a "big mystery," because no one knows why Diana didn't go to PG&E that day and have the power turned back on. Instead, her son, Hargett, borrowed a generator from a friend. On Jan. 14, they set the generator outside, but, after a noise complaint, Hargett moved the generator into a crawl space in the house the following evening, Saturday, Jan. 15 -- the night Diana, Alexis, Jayden and Hargett all succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning along with four of their seven dogs.

Marina said she was survived because she went outside to smoke, but Park brought in experts that proved her theory wrong and said she couldn't have been in the house that night or she would have died, too. Unfortunately there were no carbon monoxide detectors in the home, but, at the time, they were not required by law. Park said the generator ran until it used up all the gas and shut off, probably around midnight.

The plaintiffs claimed negligence because, according to California law, landowners must keep property in a safe condition so as not to cause harm to anyone. However, Park stated that there was no landlord-tenant relationship between the DiFiore's and any of the occupants because the DiFiore's allowed them to stay without paying rent and without a lease. The plaintiffs also argued that the defendants had the power turned off with intent to terminate their occupancy, but Park argued that LaDonna was merely acting as Dotson's agent, not on her own behalf.

"They (plaintiffs) have sued for legal theories that, at the end of the day, the court knocked out," Park said. "The jury looked at the facts and did the right thing."

However, one juror wishing to remain anonymous and the plaintiffs' lawyer, Stephen Gorog, don't agree.

"They (other jurors) felt that just because she (LaDonna) had the electricity turned off, that wasn't tantamount to making her responsible for all the deaths of the people," the anonymous juror said. "I don't blame him (Hargett) for getting a generator to try to preserve their food and for light. I felt there was somewhat a lack of justice, but yet I don't feel that if they had held LaDonna accountable that they would have gotten the rewards they were wanting. It's just a horrible, horrible tragedy."

After two days of deliberation, the jury read their verdict before Judge Michael Jurkovich. However, the vote wasn't unanimous -- the jury voted 10-2 that William was not negligent and 9-3 that LaDonna was not negligent.

Gorog said the jury's verdict was disappointing.

"If Madera County residents think it's okay to turn off power on people, I don't want to live there," Gorog said. "You can see the jury struggled with that, but they came back that there was no negligence at all and the evidence was certainly there."

The cost bill -- in which the winning side gets to recover their court costs -- was filed last week and is estimated to be in excess of $70,000. There had been an offer to settle out of court, but the plaintiffs didn't accept it and demanded a six figure settlement that was not accepted. The plaintiffs are now required by law to pay the defendant's attorney fees. -- the winning side's court fees -- which is estimated to be an excess of $70,000.

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