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Santa Monica Rejects Claims in Market Crash

Five people who accuse the city of negligence, for not having barriers to prevent the July accident, try to get money for medical bills.

October 09, 2003|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

Nearly three months after an elderly driver killed 10 people when his car crashed through the Santa Monica Farmers' Market, city attorneys have rejected the first five negligence claims brought by people who said they had been injured at the scene.

The claims filed so far involve a variety of injuries but none of the deaths.

They represent the first step in the legal process that is expected to result in dozens of lawsuits alleging that the city of Santa Monica was negligent because it failed to erect sturdier barriers to protect shoppers from vehicles.

Driver George Russell Weller, 86, also will be a target of the civil litigation, lawyers say, but his automobile insurance policy will in no way compensate all the victims for the full extent of their losses, including, in at least one case, the death of a child.

Authorities are expected to complete their investigation of the incident later this month, said Lt. Frank Fabrega, spokesman for the Santa Monica Police Department. Prosecutors have not yet decided whether to file criminal charges against the driver.

"Obviously, the older gentleman who was driving the car probably has substantial liability," said Hollywood attorney Thomas Hunter Russell, who filed one of the claims. "Whatever insurance he has will be wiped out."

For that reason, victims are expected to sue the city, with its greater economic resources, for its alleged role in the deadly accident, claiming it should have done more to prevent such a crash.

The city has "to do something to make sure the streets are somewhat safe," Russell said.

Weller allegedly plowed his maroon Buick sedan at high speed through the crowded market on July 16, striking shoppers.

Deputy Santa Monica City Atty. Jeanette Schachtner said a preliminary investigation on behalf of the city had concluded that Santa Monica was not responsible for damages.

"We have concluded that the accident was not the city's fault," she said.

As a result, Schachtner expects all future claims to be rejected.

"The rejection letters are based on the city's initial conclusion that the accident was solely caused by Mr. Weller and the city had nothing to do with it," Schachtner said

"Mr. Weller was clearly aware of the farmers' market .... He saw the barricades," she said. "There was nothing else the city could have done" to stop him.

Schachtner said calls for heavier barricades are "just not practical" because such barriers would hamper the movement of emergency vehicles.

All injured parties, including the survivors of the 10 people killed in the crash, have six months after the accident to make claims before they can sue the city.

"We are hopeful there will be no more claims," Schachtner said, "but realistically, we anticipate there will be more claims."

Sonia Moriel, 34, filed one of the first claims and was surprised to learn that more people hadn't done so. "Just five claims? That just blows me away," she said.

But Moriel knows the difficulty of trying to find a lawyer to file a claim seeking compensation for her minor injuries. She talked to five -- all of whom turned her away -- before filing the $500 claim with the city herself. She is seeking the money to pay for acupuncture for leg injuries she said she suffered when a table turned over and knocked her to the ground.

Moriel said friends who were more seriously injured than she was are having an equally difficult time retaining counsel. She doesn't know what to do next.

"The city of Santa Monica has not come forth and taken any responsibility for this at all," she said.

Meanwhile, the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce has distributed more than $90,000 to victims and their families, said its president, Kathryn B. Dodson.

The group sent $5,000 to the families of each of the deceased and at least $2,500 to the 16 other victims whom authorities had listed as having suffered "major injuries," she said.

The chamber raised more than $150,000 for victims after the crash, and hopes to give it all away in the upcoming weeks, Dodson said.

The deadline to apply for the money is Wednesday.

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