On August 28, 2009, CHP Officer Mark Saylor was driving his family east on Highway 125 near Santee, California. His wife Cleofe was in the vehicle and so was their daughter Mahala, then 13 years old. Chris Lastrella, Cleofe’s brother was also riding along. Mark was driving a loaner Lexus vehicle from Bob Baker Lexus of El Cajon.
At some point during the drive, the accelerator stuck with the throttle wide open causing the car to reach speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. The brakes failed. Chris called 911. 911 records all of its calls. And so, the audio of that call brings you inside the car in real-time. As they approach the end of the freeway in Santee, you hear Mark telling everyone to “pray.” The recording then goes silent.
All four of them died that terrible day. Toyota issued a massive recall of its vehicles and the case received international coverage. And the family chose me to be one of their lawyers. It truly was the case of a career.
We sued Toyota and the dealership that loaned Mark the car. Our clients testified before Congress. There were constant press and attention. Many other cases were filed. Everything we did was closely watched.
Most important by far, however, were our incredible clients. We represented the surviving parents and grandparents of those that lost their lives. We represented John Saylor, Mark’s dad, and Joan Robbins, his mom. Both lived in Missouri, where John grew up. John was married to Nancy. Joan was married to Barry. We spent lots and lots to time together. It’s hard to imagine losing your only child and only grandchild in such a horrible way. What was most impressive to me was the grace and strength they always demonstrated. John was so earnest and Joan was so sweet. And they were always so welcoming and nice to me and the other lawyers. They truly became family.
We also represented Fe and Cleto Lastrella, the parents of Cleofe and Chris and grandparents of Mahala. We spent lots and lots of time with them as well. I was so impressed by how close they were as a family. Fe was the strong and proud mother. The kids obviously adored and admired her. Cleto was more quiet. He had spent a career in the Navy and still looked like he could run 5 miles at an 8 minute pace and pump out 50 pushups. Its no wonder that all of his boys were so athletic. We spent lots of time with them, and their surviving children, Cleo (“Ching”), Cliff and Carl. They always fed us. Lots. And it was always awesome food and company.
As for the case, we settled relatively early with Toyota. But the case against the dealership was headed for trial in Los Angeles. We felt that they were primarily at fault for the crash. And we were excited to try the case. I remember that we rented a house in the Hollywood Hills to be our base of operations during trial. It was right next door to Doctor House, from TV. And then, after motions in limine, the case settled.
I learned a lot during that case that makes me a better lawyer today. I learned how big events affect big companies and how that can influence litigation decisions. I learned how to effectively manage a huge public relations case. I learned how to work under pressure and in the spotlight. I learned how to work well with a large team and multiple clients with sometimes different objectives.
While the case was the highlight of my career, and the clients were beyond incredible, the funny thing is that I still carry some trauma with me today because of it. The loss was so great and the tragedy so overwhelming that until very recently, I had not really come to terms with it. I haven’t kept in touch as much as I should have with my clients or my team. I have never written about the case or discussed it much. I guess at some level, I feel some guilt over not being able to bring Mark, Cleofe, Chris and Mahala back. Like my kids, Mahala played club soccer. It’s sometimes hard for me to think about her and my kids at the same time.
But something changed that. Just this week, Fe and Cleto hosted a “celebration of life” to commemorate the ten year anniversary of their family members’ deaths. I have been to others in the past, and they were kind enough to invite me to this one. There were more than 300 people there, ten years later. Many had traveled to be there and people spoke about each family member lost. Most importantly for me, the family embraced and welcomed me like not a moment had passed. We were all together again.
That experience this past Saturday caused me to think and re-examine. I realize now that we lawyers could not have done more. I watched how family and friends celebrated life instead of death. Their loss was deeply personal and real. Yet they are brave enough to face it and remain positive in the celebration of who their loved ones were. Seeing that allowed me to let go a bit too. And so, I decided to write this blog. And start a soccer scholarship in Mahala’s name with her old club. It’s surprising that it took me ten years to write about the biggest case of my career. Particularly when I had the privilege of representing some of the finest human beings I have ever met. But I’m proud of the work that we did. And very thankful that I had the opportunity to do it.