Crime

Distracted driver sentenced for SLO triathlete’s death — ‘It could have been avoided’

Lisa Smith was sentenced to probation at a sentencing hearing Thursday after pleading no contest in June to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for striking and killing triathlete Bridget Dawson on Highway 227 south of Biddle Ranch Road in 2016.
Lisa Smith was sentenced to probation at a sentencing hearing Thursday after pleading no contest in June to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for striking and killing triathlete Bridget Dawson on Highway 227 south of Biddle Ranch Road in 2016. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

An Ohio woman whose vehicle struck and killed a world-class triathlete on Highway 227 while she was talking on her cell phone in 2016 was sentenced to probation Thursday for vehicular manslaughter.

Lisa Smith, previously a resident of Oceano, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence for the death of Bridget Dawson, a world-champion triathlete and wife of the dean of Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business.

Under the terms of Smith’s plea deal — which was made with the blessing of the Dawson family — Superior Court Judge Dodie Harman sentenced her to three years of formal probation and 200 hours of community service.

Though she faced up to a year in County Jail, Dawson previously told The Tribune that he and his his children agreed early in the proceedings that jail time for Smith wasn’t necessary.

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Harman said the Dawson family is also not seeking restitution through the court, though a wrongful death lawsuit they filed against Smith in December 2016 is scheduled to go to trial in January.

Bridget_Vineman
Bridget Dawson competes in a race in an undated photo. Courtesy photo

Dawson, 58, was fatally injured July 14, 2016, as she was bicycling on Highway 227 south of Biddle Ranch Road. According to the California Highway Patrol, Smith’s 2012 Chrysler drifted onto the road’s right shoulder and hit Dawson from behind.

Dawson was thrown from her bike, sustained multiple injuries and was pronounced dead at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center.

Dawson was a champion triathlete who bested her age group in the World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand, in 2012. She also won in the U.S. Duathlon Championships (a running and cycling event) from 2013 to 2016.

At Thursday’s hearing, Deputy District Attorney Stephen Wagner read aloud a statement written by Dawson’s husband. In it, Dawson said Bridget was happy and “thriving” on the Central Coast, and that losing his partner was disorienting and sad.

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He recounted how, in the aftermath of his wife’s death, he was depressed and left his job at Cal Poly to move back to his hometown of Portland, Oregon. He soon realized, however, that he wanted to remain in San Luis Obispo County and wrote that he was grateful the university took him back.

Scott Dawson’s statement also recounted that Smith first told investigators that she was “praying” when she hit Bridget Dawson, and only admitted that she was talking on her cell phone when her phone records were examined.

Scott Dawson wrote that while he’s not mad at Smith, he’s sad that she hasn’t taken responsibility for his wife’s death.

After the statement was read in court, Smith told Harman that she has acknowledged to Dawson “that it is my responsibility he lost his wife.”

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Harman told Smith that she hopes her conviction serves as a reminder to the community of the dangers of distracted driving.

“This is truly an absolute tragedy, and I think the biggest tragedy of all is that it could have been avoided,” Harman told Smith. “I hope that you’re able to reflect ... how that momentary lapse of judgment has affected so many people’s happiness.”

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