Sometimes, cases take off in directions that you could not have predicted.
In the early morning hours of February 12, 2005, Sam Lee, a 48-year-old real estate agent, was driving from his home in Oxnard, CA to a house that he was showing in Porter Ranch. He was traveling on Santa Rosa Road, which cuts through suburban and rural areas of Ventura County.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a horse rushed into the road directly in front of Mr. Lee’s car and landed on his windshield. Both Mr. Lee and the horse were killed instantly.
Mr. Lee left behind a loving wife and two sons, ages 22 and 19. The family was emotionally devastated by the senseless and sudden death of a man who was in excellent health and regularly ran the L.A. Marathon.
Moreover, they were devastated financially. Mr. Lee was a very successful real estate agent who had his own show, on Korean radio, discussing real estate issues, and earned a multiple six-figure income.
His wife did not work outside the home, his sons were still in college, and Mr. Lee had only a small life insurance policy. The family was left wondering how they would make ends meet.
Our initial investigation focused on the owners of the residential property from which the horse had escaped. The fence surrounding the horse corral was dilapidated and inadequate. After a preliminary exchange of information, the insurance company for the horse owner agreed to pay its $1,000,000 policy limits.
Next, our attention turned to what had caused the horse to try to escape from the corral in the first place, something he had never done before. It turns out that, during the time period of the accident, a Siberian tiger was roaming through this part of Ventura County before being shot and killed by Fish & Game investigators 11 days after the accident.
The story had received a great deal of press coverage. We wondered whether the unusual (to say the least) presence of the tiger might explain why the horse had become suddenly motivated to try to run away. The horse was used to seeing a variety of animals in this rural neighborhood, but a tiger was something different altogether.
As it turns out, the horse owner had inspected the broken pieces of the horse corral after the accident and discovered one fence post with splotches of mud that appeared to contain an animal print.
An experienced tiger trainer inspected the post on our behalf and concluded that the print indeed belonged to a tiger. An animal tracking expert hired by the defendant, however, concluded that the print was from a large dog.
Fish & Game investigators were unwilling to commit one way or the other. Beyond the paw print, however, evidence (consisting of eyewitness sightings of the tiger and paw prints in the dirt) suggested that the tiger, during its month-long travels through Ventura County, had likely passed along this very stretch of Santa Rosa Road.
The tiger had escaped from a make-shift animal sanctuary being operated by a couple who had recently moved over 20 wild cats to Ventura County from Temecula.
Our investigation focused on the property owner who had decided (inexplicably) to rent a portion of his large estate in Simi Valley to the wild cat owners.
We learned that he had failed to obtain the proper permit or run a thorough background check on the wild cat owners and did not even tell his neighbors about the wild animal menagerie that was now in their midst.
He also ignored clear indications that the facilities being used to house the wild cats were grossly inadequate. Plus, there was no perimeter fence around the property at all.
In the face of this evidence showing both negligence on the part of the property owner and a strong possibility that the tiger had played a role in Mr. Lee’s death, the property owner’s insurance company eventually agreed to pay its own $1,000,000 policy limits.
Thus, the case settled for a total of $2,000,000, and the Lee family now had the financial resources with which to try to rebuild their lives without their beloved husband and father.