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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, March 9, 2005

$5.6M awarded to family of Big Island crash victim

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

HILO, Hawai'i — A Big Island Circuit Court jury has awarded more than $5.6 million to the family of a woman who was killed in a 2000 car crash caused by a motorist who was fleeing from police.

The jury ruled that Big Island police and the county were 34 percent responsible for the collision that killed 31-year-old Ellison Sweezey. That means the county will have to pay more than $1.9 million of yesterday's award.

Richard Rosario, the driver of the stolen car that smashed into Sweezey's vehicle on Sept. 7, 2000, is responsible for the rest of the damages, but lawyers involved in the case agreed it is likely that money will never be collected.

Rosario, 24, is serving a 20-year prison term for manslaughter for his role in the crash that killed Sweezey, a mother of five, at the busy Hilo intersection of Maka'ala Street and Kanoelehua Avenue.

Paulyn Estioko, Sweezey's sister, said the family is glad the trial is finally over, and that she believes justice was served. Estioko and her husband have been raising four of Sweezey's children at their home in Carson, Calif. Sweezey's oldest daughter lives with her father.

"We're at peace with what's been done, and we can finally move forward and rebuild our lives," Estioko said.

Estioko was driving east on Maka'ala in a Honda Accord, with her sister in the front passenger seat, on the day of the crash. Sweezey's 2-year-old daughter, Megan, was in the back seat.

Rosario had fled from police in Puna, and officers chased him for more than 12 miles before the stolen Nissan Sentra he was driving broadsided the Honda in busy afternoon traffic at the intersection near Prince Kuhio Plaza.

County Corporation Counsel Lincoln Ashida said the county will review the jury verdict before deciding whether to file an appeal, but said he does not agree with the jury's decision. He said he believes sympathy for Sweezey's family played a large part in the award.

Rosario was passing cars on the right side of the highway, and "the police were put in a position where they had to decide do we do something about it, or do nothing. It's almost like you're damned if you do, or you're damned if you don't," Ashida said.

Dwayne Lerma, who represented Estioko, said police violated their own procedures for high-speed chases. Robert Marx, who represented Sweezey's parents, her children and her estate, said general orders for Big Island police require officers to end a high-speed chase if the suspect is only wanted for traffic violations.

"Richard Rosario was a paranoid drug addict who was out of control, and they just added fuel to the fire pursuing him through the streets," Marx said.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.