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Middlekauff settles suit over stolen car

An auto dealer has agreed to pay a "substantial" sum to settle a lawsuit by a couple injured when their vehicle was struck by a car stolen from the dealership.

Melody and Francisco Cruz alleged Middlekauff Lincoln-Mercury managers should have been aware that the practice of leaving keys in demonstration cars puts the public at risk."Car dealers don't leave keys in vehicles because they know they'll be stolen and involved in accidents," plaintiffs' attorney Robert Sykes argued last week in a pretrial hearing.

The Salt Lake County dealership denies negligence in the 1992 wreck, but settled the case, which had been scheduled to begin Tuesday. The settlement included an agreement that terms be confidential.

Middlekauff attorney Shawn McGarry did not return phone calls.

"The clients were very gratified to get it resolved," said Sykes, who declined to specify the amount of the settlement. "It wasn't a nuisance-value settlement. They demanded this be a confidential settlement. I have to honor that."

Middlekauff's defense team placed blame for the accident entirely on thief John Fitzgerald Albretsen, who was paroled from prison in April 1991. He admitted committing hundreds of thefts over the next year.

Albretsen, then 26, walked into Middlekauff's service building on a Saturday afternoon, May 16, 1992, according to defense filings. He climbed into a new Lincoln, which had its keys left in the ignition, and drove the vehicle through a closed bay door that could be opened from the inside.

Police attempted to pull over the driver for a traffic violation. But Albretsen sped away, ran a red light and slammed into the Cruzes' Ford Bronco.

Melody Cruz, then 20, suffered major injuries and lost her 5-month-old fetus. Her husband suffered serious spinal and head injuries. The couple divorced, blaming the crash for the collapse of their marriage.

Albretsen went back to prison on parole violations with an additional 18 months added for drunken driving and "attempted unlawful control of a motor vehicle."

The Utah Supreme Court held that the special circumstances alleged by the Cruzes could form the basis of a negligence claim, allowing the case to go to trial.

Sykes alleged Middlekauff often left keys in the ignition of cars parked on lots where the public has access, and the dealership allegedly failed to tighten its security practices even after dozens of cars were stolen.

Albretsen had stolen another car from the Middlekauff lot nine years earlier in March 1983, and was arrested after a high-speed chase, Sykes said.

During the time between Albretsen's two thefts, 37 vehicles were stolen from Middlekauff, the lawyer alleged.

Middlekauff attorneys contested Sykes' theft numbers and said it is a common practice among dealers to leave vehicle keys in the ignition when cars are parked in secured areas, they said.