Sacramento will pay $9.75 million to parents of baby killed when police officer crashed into their car

After several miscarriages and the death of a newborn baby, Steve and Chrystal Saechao called their healthy 9-month-old son, Raiden, their “miracle baby.”

The child was fatally injured in 2013 when a Sacramento police officer rear-ended the family’s car on Interstate 80. The city of Sacramento has agreed to pay $9.75 million to the couple – a sum that their law firm called a record in an infant death case.

“He didn’t take away all the pain but he gave us hope,” Steve Saechao said of Raiden in a press release issued by their law firm. “His eyes and smile lit up our lives. Then in a split second, because of distracted driving, he was taken away from us.”

The officer involved, identified as Greg Mark Halstead in court documents, was driving a blue 2013 Ford Explorer given to him by the Sacramento Police Department for work purposes at the time of the crash, said lawyer John Demas, whose Demas Law Group represented the couple and announced the settlement in a press release Tuesday.

The website Transparent California says Halstead worked as a police officer in 2014 and was promoted to a sergeant within the department in 2015. He held that title in 2016.

“With this settlement, the City acknowledged that police officers who are trained in protecting the safety and well-being of people can and should be held accountable when their reckless and careless behavior causes injury to those they are supposed to protect,” Demas said in the release.

The crash occurred on Dec. 17, 2013. Steve Saechao was driving his family’s white Toyota Scion in stop-and-go traffic in the slow lane of Interestate 80 in Rocklin. Raiden was strapped into a rear-facing car seat, in accordance with state regulations.

Saechao was stopped in the heavy traffic when Halstead’s blue Explorer came from behind at more than 60 miles an hour, according to the Demas Law Group press release. The police officer did not slow down. He plowed into Saechao’s car, thrusting it into a passing big-rig, a crash simulation showed.

Halstead also had children in his car, the Demas Law Group press release said.

“The City of Sacramento initially denied that the officer was on the clock and working for the City at the time of the crash, but later accepted liability,” Demas said in the statement. “The police officer rear-ended a car not because he was in pursuit but because he was distracted or simply not paying attention.”

Raiden was taken to UC Davis Medical Center with major head injuries from the crash. He died right before Christmas.

The Saechao family filed a civil case after the Placer County District Attorney’s Office declined to file criminal charges against Halstead in the crash, the statement said. The settlement was agreed after a three-year court battle between the family and the city of Sacramento.

A call from the Sacramento City Attorney’s Office was not returned Tuesday. Sgt. Matthew McPhail said he does not know the specifics of the settlement, but confirmed that Halstead continues to work for the Sacramento Police Department as a sergeant in the operations unit.

Attorney Phillip Bonotto, who represented Halstead in the case, denied a request for a comment Tuesday afternoon, saying, “It’s not my practice to comment upon litigation.”

Court files entered by Bonotto on behalf of Halstead in September 2014 say the officer denied all allegations against him in the case and that the family “failed to exercise ordinary care for plaintiffs’ own safety” at the time of the crash.”

Lawyers representing Sacramento filed documents in court denying that Halstead was working for the city at the time of the accident. The city’s filing also asserted that the family did not have enough facts to support its claim against the city.

The law group said the Saechao family plans to donate a portion of the settlement to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving and cell phone use behind the wheel.

“I don’t have the words to describe the pain and suffering we’ve endured for more than three years,” Chrystal Saechao said. “Life can be very, very tough, and I had no choice but to get myself back up, to get out of bed and fight for Raiden. We had to prove that our son had value and that he meant something.”

Nashelly Chavez: 916-321-1188, @nashellytweets