Cab Driver in Fatal Crash Lacked Permit, Officials Say

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A cab driver who may face a vehicular manslaughter charge in the July 4 death of a popular lifeguard was driving without a permit and works for a taxi company that is under increasing fire for permit and insurance violations, according to officials and records.

Police recommended Tuesday that Michelle Marchman be charged after tests showed she was driving 80 mph just before she skidded into Adam "A.J." Summers' motorcycle at a Pacific Coast Highway red light in a predawn crash.

That investigation has intensified official scrutiny of California Yellow Taxi Cab Co. of Huntington Beach, a business that one county official characterized this week as a rogue company that has not responded to demands to show whether the 31 cars in its fleet are insured.

"It's sickening," said Mike Greenwood, director of the Orange County Taxi Administration Program, an agency created in January to regulate the county's taxis. "We've had a lot of problems with this company."

Huntington Beach Deputy City Atty. Sarah Lazarus said she will meet today with police to examine "possible civil or criminal ramifications" of the company's licensing problems. A temporary restraining order to shut down the fleet may be considered.

"This company is a real concern if they're running around picking up fares in our city and they have no insurance, no protection," Lazarus said.

At the company's small headquarters in a Huntington Beach industrial park, owner Seton Montgomerie said Tuesday he was "surprised and saddened" by news that police had recommended that Marchman be charged. He said his company is being unfairly criticized.

The county agency is "a new organization, and what they're saying isn't accurate," he said. "I won't take a shot at them, but I wouldn't expect them to take a shot at me."

Police Alerted to Firm

Weeks before the crash, Greenwood's agency sent a bulletin to local police agencies alerting them that the company was "operating illegally" and that "their cabs may be unsafe, their vehicles uninsured and their drivers not drug-tested."

Montgomerie declined to specifically address the statements in the county bulletin, but said his drivers and cars are safe and his customers are well served. "That goes without saying," he said. "Anything else I say will be construed the wrong way."

At the time of the crash, Marchman was among about two dozen company drivers lacking a county-approved taxi permit, which requires background checks and annual drug testing, according to county officials. The company also has not responded to requests by police to prove its taxi fleet was insured.

To be in accordance with the law, cab companies must have permits for their businesses, their cabs and their drivers. Although six drivers who work for Montgomerie have permits, none of his 31 cabs have county taxi permits nor does his company.

"I asked for the policy number, and they won't return my calls," said Robert Barr, the Huntington Beach police officer who monitors the licensing of local cab companies. He said the company has been issued dozens of citations in recent months.

The company has frustrated local police in the past, but the scrutiny of the business was stepped up in January with the creation of the Taxi Administration Program, an agency run by the Orange County Transportation Authority.

State law requires city governments to regulate taxi companies, a hardship for some cab companies forced to deal with laws varying by city and to buy permits from every city in which they drive. In many cities, enforcing the regulations has been difficult or a low priority.

To streamline the process and create uniformity, 22 of Orange County's 31 cities have agreed to participate in the county program. For some of those cities, that meant bringing their city ordinances in line with the sometimes stricter county standards.

Of the 16 cab companies that compete for Orange County fares, Montgomerie's company is the only one in the 7-month-old program without a business permit allowing it to operate taxis, Greenwood said.

A key requirement for such a permit is providing proof that every car in the fleet is covered by a policy of at least $1 million per accident, Greenwood said.

The company, the sixth largest taxi firm in Orange County, has not responded to a June 11 request for proof of insurance for its fleet, Greenwood said. Warning letters and notices dating to late 1997--several months before the county agency was formed--urged the company to comply with upcoming countywide standards, Greenwood said.

Death Spurred Inquiry

Montgomerie said Tuesday that he believed his city-issued business permits were adequate to legally operate, and said he has "the intention to join" the county agency.

"It's all blown out of proportion," Montgomerie said, adding that he believed permit problems have nothing to do with the crash. "They are two separate issues. The accident was a tragedy."

But Barr, the Huntington Beach police officer, said the death of the lifeguard has led to tougher questions about the cab company and its business.

"I guess it takes something tragic like this to a popular guy to bring this to the forefront," Barr said. "It's unfortunate, but maybe things will change now."

The death of Summers, a Los Alamitos native, led to an outpouring of grief from friends and fellow rescue workers who praised the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Seal Beach lifeguard for the bravery that earned him medals and statewide recognition.

Summers was astride his 1984 Kawasaki motorcycle waiting for a traffic light on northbound Pacific Coast Highway at the intersection of Seapoint when Marchman's cab plowed into him and threw him from the bike.

Investigators revealed Tuesday that a reconstruction of the accident shows that the cab was barreling down the seaside highway at 80 mph before Marchman locked up her brakes and went into a skid. The vehicle was traveling at 54 mph when it hit the motorcycle, the tests show. The posted speed limit is 50 mph.

County prosecutors will decide what, if any, charges to file in the case, but investigators recommended Tuesday that Marchman face a charge of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence, a misdemeanor that could carry a sentence of up to one year.

Marchman could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

State records show the 39-year-old cabby had an accident in 1996 and three other driving infractions: speeding in 1996, driving without headlights that same year and driving with a suspended license in 1994. Marchman was hired not long before the July 4 accident and had not applied for a taxi driver permit, Barr said.

The controversial company's name is similar to that of a Santa Ana business in "good standing" with county regulations and state law, Greenwood said. The other fleet runs under the name California Yellow Cab Co.

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