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May 17, 2007

by Zeke MacCormack 
Metro and State News

A federal jury awarded a Hondo trash hauler $1.25 million Wednesday, finding police lacked probable cause to jail him in 2003 after his garbage truck damaged utility lines.

James T. Hooten of South Texas Refuse called the verdict “total vindication” but said it’s merely “round one” in his legal bout with the city of Hondo.
He plans a new suit accusing the city of retaliation and wrongful termination for canceling his trash collection contract this spring.

His attorney, Paul Vick, said Hooten was awarded $800,000 in punitive damages, $450,000 for mental anguish and $3,500 in actual damages.

Vick said the jury “did the right thing” in ruling against the city, former Police Chief Don Berger and former officer Andy Chernak, now a San Antonio Police Department officer.

Hooten’s suit claimed the city jailed him in order to pressure him after repeated clashes over the contract he secured in 2002.

Mayor Jim Danner called the verdict unexpected and unreasonable. “I imagine there would be an appeal,” he said.

He also said that by state statute, municipalities aren’t liable for punitive damages, “so the $800,000 would not be something we’re involved in.”

The city has insurance to cover such claims, but there is a deductible it might have to cover..

Danner said Hooten lacks grounds to sue over his contract because it allowed either side to terminate with proper notice.

Berger, Chernak and their lawyers could not be reached for comment on the outcome of the three-day trial before U.S. District Judge Harry Lee Hudspeth.

The case stemmed from an accident May 5, 2003, in which Hooten, while making trash collections, pulled down utility lines on 29th Street.

Sheriff’s dispatch tapes show Hooten called to report a wire was down but didn’t identify himself, report an accident or say he was driving.

He remained with the truck until electric crews arrived but left temporarily before returning to give police his license and registration.

He was arrested four days later on a charge — later dismissed — of violating a statute requiring anyone who strikes a highway fixture to take reasonable steps to notify the owner.

In closing arguments, the defense said Hooten should’ve called 911, reported his role as the driver and stayed at the scene until police arrived.

But attorney Vick described those arguments as “smoke and mirrors” because Hooten fulfilled his obligation to notify the electric department, which owned the damaged pole.

Vick said city leaders eager to cancel the contract used the accident to “humiliate and degrade” Hooten by handcuffing and jailing him without cause.

“This is abuse by city officials,” Vick said in closing remarks. “They made it personal.”