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$3.6-Million Injury Judgment Won by Quadriplegic Against Redondo Overturned

September 28, 1986|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

A $3.6-million judgment won by a former Hawthorne woman against the city of Redondo Beach after she was paralyzed in an auto accident has been overturned by a state appellate court.

At the time of the 1982 judgment, it was the largest known personal injury verdict against any South Bay city and came after the city's insurance carrier had offered to settle the case for $2.2 million.

In a unanimous decision, the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles last week ruled that Redondo Beach was not responsible for the traffic accident that left Guillermina (Billie) Ramirez, then 15, paralyzed. Ramirez had contended that an improperly designed intersection and a row of shrubbery that blocked her view caused the 1976 accident.

"Telling my client what (the court) did was one of the hardest jobs I have had to do in my legal career," Ramirez's attorney, Michael Piuze, said. "The reason for that is that she is quadriplegic, she was hurt 10 years ago and a jury gave her a verdict. . . . She is basically without a family and totally without funds."

Piuze said the city's insurance carrier at the time of the accident, Maine Bonding Co. of New Jersey, had offered to settle the case for $2.2 million after jurors held the city 80% responsible for Ramirez's injuries. (The jury held her 20% responsible).

The jury had not begun deliberations on how much money they felt Ramirez was entitled to when the insurance company's offer was made, Piuze said.

"They offered her a sum that I believed was inadequate, and I advised her to the fact that it was inadequate," Piuze said. The attorney said Ramirez did not mention the settlement offer when he informed her of the appellate court's ruling.

Piuze, who declined to say where Ramirez now resides, said he had not yet read the court's opinion, but plans to appeal to a higher court.

Ramirez was injured June 4, 1976, when the car she was driving collided with another on Manhattan Beach Boulevard and crashed into a pole near Inglewood Avenue. She testified that her father, a passenger in the car, was teaching her to drive at the time, and that it was only her second time driving on public streets.

At the trial, Ramirez said that as she attempted to turn left from a shopping center onto the boulevard, a row of shrubbery on the median blocked her view of oncoming traffic and the shape of the divider caused her to swing wide.

The city countered that it could not have done anything to prevent the accident and that it was not liable.

In overturning the jury's verdict, the appellate court referred to a state law that provides immunity to cities in lawsuits stemming from the conditions of streets unless it can be proven that a "reasonable person" would not have approved the street's design.

"The cause of this tragic occurrence must be laid solely upon the inattentive and inexperienced plaintiff and a series of events, involving the action or inactions of (the driver of the other car) and plaintiff's father, which defy logical explanation," wrote Associate Justice Lynn Compton.

Thomas F. Overlander, the attorney who represented the city during the trial, said last week that despite the jury's verdict, he had been confident that the higher court would overturn it.

"My feeling is the same thing the court of appeals stated," Overlander said. "It was an unfortunate accident that happened to a young lady, but it wasn't the responsibility of the city. I think the reason she prevailed in court was because of the sympathy the jury had for her."

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