It is a unique, interesting job that saves California millions of dollars every year but the work of a Caltrans litigation specialist often goes unnoticed and uncelebrated.
"These cases are very emotionally driven, it's never a good scenario," said Cyndy Smith. "You pray that a jury will see through that."
Smith is not only a litigation specialist with Caltrans, she is also a California Association of Fraud Investigators (CAFI) board member and a member of the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association (CSLEA). She spends her days and nights helping to prove that Caltrans is not to blame for serious or deadly accidents in which victims or victims' families have filed a lawsuit.
In a recent case, relatives of a 25-year-old woman who was killed in a crash in San Diego, not only lost their case against Caltrans, they were ordered by a judge to pay Caltrans more than $38,000 in legal costs, quite a bit less than the more than $78,000 Caltrans sought.
Crash victims or their families sometimes file lawsuits against Caltrans claiming a particular road is too dangerous. Some may go after the state agency under a "deep pockets" impression but with the help of litigation specialists like Smith, Caltrans has made it clear, it will only pay taxpayer dollars in lawsuits where it has been proven there is a dangerous condition caused by Caltrans.
"Their stories are sad," said Smith who recalls one case in which a couple lost three children in a violent collision. In that case, the plaintiffs were asking for $51 million dollars, according to Smith. "If we had lost that case, that's huge. Winning these cases is a savings to California."
Winning is not something that is celebrated though. No litigation specialist ever loses sight that something tragic and unchangeable has happened to those they meet in court.
The courtroom is actually where Smith spends the least amount of her time. Smith said litigation specialists are actually investigators who's job title was changed along the way. "I go back and talk to CHP officers, witnesses, try to find original vehicles in the accident, we set up accident reconstruction, get experts, make arrangements to have the road shut down at the same time of day the accident happened, if there was something wrong we need to know," said Smith.
After a verdict in favor of Caltrans, Caltrans can seek payment for legal expenses for having to defend itself in court. "It's written law when someone loses a case against the government, government can get costs back," said Smith.
Grieving families who lose their cases against Caltrans and in turn are ordered to reimburse the state agency for costs, often turn to the media. It is an emotional turn of events for most, but Caltrans acts on behalf of state taxpayers and makes sure the California highway system is safe.
As for Smith, she loves her part in setting the record straight. " I do," said Smith. "This job gets me out and about, I meet all kinds of people, some are nice, some are not so nice, I get to work with law enforcement and most of all it allows me to be a part of uncovering the truth."
Smith started out with Caltrans in Sacramento headquarters as a paralegal in April 1998 and became a litigation specialist II in 2000.