In a controversial decision, California Superior Court Judge John S. Einhorn sentenced four friends involved in the death of professional surfer Emery Kauanui to relatively short sentences of between 90 and 349 days. All pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. A fifth individual, Seth Cravens, is awaiting trial. The five men were called the Bird Rock Bandits and alleged by prosecutors to be a gang in LaJolla, California. In the meantime, his mother (shown with the surfer) has sued the Bird Rock Bandits, their parents, and the bar (where the fight began) in a wrongful death action.
On May 23, 2007, Kauanui was at a promotional surf-company event at the bar when he got into a quarrel with Eric House, 21. House was doused with beer and Kauanui was thrown out of the bar. The men continued to trade threats by phone and the five friends drove to Kauanui’s house. According to witnesses, Kauanui came running out of the house and House lost a tooth in the struggle. However, Kauanui was left on the ground and Cravens, 22, is viewed as the ringleader.
The case involved an attempt by the prosecutors to treat the five as a gang under California’s gang laws. Prosecutor Sophia Roach argued that they were a gang called “The Bird Rock Bandits,” but the judge found that they were not organized for the purposes of committing crimes. In the court’s favor, there appeared little evidence of more than a juvenile as opposed to a criminal association.
However, Einhorn’s sentencing statement seemed sharply inconsistent with his actual sentencing. He told the men, “[y]ou don’t have to be a criminal street gang to be a bunch of bullies that together think they’re stronger, tougher, smarter, and can get away with murder.” However, for the family, 90 days seems like that did precisely that.
Cravens has pleaded not guilty to murder and will be tried in October. The prosecution alleges that all of the men joined in the fight, but Cravens was allegedly the main instigator — encouraging House to fight. Cravens is accused of sucker-punching Kauanui in the chin when he got up, causing him to fall back and hit his head on the pavement. He was on life-support and died four days later at a hospital from brain injuries.
Eric House, 21, Orlando Osuna, 23, and Matthew Yanke, 22, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. Osuna and Yanke also pleaded guilty in June to unrelated counts of misdemeanor battery. Henri “Hank” Hendricks, 22, pleaded guilty to being an accessory to the death and to an unrelated misdemeanor battery.
Osuna received 349 days in San Diego County jail, House and Yanke each got 210 days and Hendricks got 90 days. Each received credit for time served and were given three years probation. The prosecutor wants over four years to Osuma, up to four years for House, over three years for Yanke and at least one year for Hendricks.
These are admittedly tough cases where a fight escalates in this way. The judge may have viewed this as a standard fight that resulted in an unexpected death. However, it seems like more than one of the men were involved in the fight with the victim and the friends are portrayed as affluent thugs.
The tort action by Cindy Kauanui could raise some interesting questions. The parents are accused with “parental negligence” though the friends appear to have been at or near the age of majority — though under age for drinking. Moreover, the causal connection with the bar seems tenuous at best. Kauanui appears to have been a willing participant in the fight, though more facts may emerge from discovery. Bars can be liable under dram shop theories to third parties and will occasionally be held liable for negligence in the handling of fights. This includes some cases where bars kick out individuals to face an awaiting gang. The key in this case against La Jolla Brewhouse is that it allegedly served the men despite their being underage — contributing to the fight.
However, this case involves the men seeking each other out for a fight some distance from the bar. The mother’s attorneys will have their work cut out for them to hold the bar liable. The young men would be a different story obviously. Having pleaded guilty to manslaughter, they can hardly testify that they were purely victims without facing a scathing rebuttal.