SAN JOSE -- When it comes to distracted driving, teenagers aren't the only culprits -- and other drivers aren't the only victims.
Santa Clara County taxpayers are on the hook for a $5 million settlement in a crash involving a distracted Santa Clara County Sheriff's patrol deputy who severely injured a 78-year-old man.
Instead of a cell phone, three things appear to have prompted Deputy Greg Markovic to take his eyes off the road, according to police reports -- a McDonald's hamburger, a radio microphone that got stuck and a light switch he accidentally turned on and was trying to turn off when he smashed into Diem Van Lam's 1994 Honda.
"The take-home message from this case is that distracted driving can affect anyone, at any time," said Michael M. Shea Jr., the injured man's lawyer, "even at 4 o'clock in the morning and even when you think you're the only one on the road."
The crash occurred before dawn on Monday, Jan. 9, 2012, as Van Lam was driving eastbound on Lawrence Expressway. The San Jose resident was on his way to deliver six newspapers, including The New York Times, USA Today, Korean Times and a Chinese daily. (He did not deliver papers for the Mercury News.)
At the same time, Deputy Greg Markovic was heading southbound on Saratoga Avenue at 40 mph, according to reports. They were prepared by two agencies -- San Jose police and the Sheriff's Office -- apparently because the crash occurred in San Jose, but on the border with Saratoga.
According to the reports, the deputy "looked down and bit into his hamburger," which he had just purchased at a nearby McDonald's. He then put the burger down and reached for his radio microphone, but it was either stuck or slipped, forcing him to fumble with it.
His arm accidentally brushed against a light switch, turning on his rear amber warning lights. He then "looked down" to turn off the lights and smashed into the driver's-side door of Van Lam's car.
Van Lam's injuries included a torn aorta, seven broken ribs and a skull fracture. He can no longer drive and suffers from pain in the chest, left shoulder and head, and has difficulty with mental tracking and memory. The county is self-insured for the first $2 million of the settlement, Shea said, and its insurance company covers the rest.
Neither the deputy nor Van Lam can recall for sure whether the traffic light was green or red, according to the county. But Van Lam's lawyer said the deputy must have had a red light because that early in the morning (about 4:40 a.m.), the lights on Lawrence Expressway remain green until a car has stopped at a cross street for 15 seconds. The deputy didn't stop.
Markovic is now out on what is likely to be permanent disability from an unrelated, subsequent incident, a sheriff's official said -- rescuing a child from a crash on Highway 17.
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.