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Fontana Faces $37.5-Million Death Verdict

City to appeal award to family of a girl killed by a car as she walked in an area with no sidewalks.

September 22, 2004|Lance Pugmire | Times Staff Writer

Blaming Fontana for failing to construct sidewalks, a San Bernardino County jury has awarded $37.5 million to the parents of a 14-year-old girl killed when a car struck her as she walked along a busy roadway after school.

Karen Medina, a student at A.B. Miller High School, was killed on Cypress Avenue in December 2001 when a car driven by a 15-year-old unlicensed driver veered out of control.

In a verdict delivered Monday, the jury decided the city is 75% liable for the damages. The parents of the driver are liable for the remaining 25%.

Fontana spokesman Edward Raya said the city believes Karen's death was due to a negligent driver, traveling more than 50 mph, and not the absence of sidewalks.

"How that makes us responsible, I don't know,'' Raya said. "We're shocked at the size of this verdict. It's extremely large for an accident of this kind." The city will appeal, he said.

The attorneys representing the girl's parents, Cruz and Agueda Miranda, argued that Fontana failed to act on reports that lack of sidewalks created a hazard because of the heavy volume of vehicle and pedestrian traffic before and after school at the 3,700-student high school.

"With all these kids coming and going, people speeding on that street, and kids driving to and from school, this was an accident waiting to happen," said Arash Homampour, who represented the parents, along with co-counsel Reza Mirroknian. "It happened because the city didn't do its job. This was a preventable death."

Homampour said Karen was less than a mile from school in a residential neighborhood when she was hit.

He told jurors that the City Council had received many complaints about the dangerous conditions along Cypress Avenue.

The city had money to pay for the sidewalks, but decided to apply for state funding for them, Homampour said. The city received the state money after Karen was killed. The sidewalks that were installed cost $6,000, contractors said.

Homampour said the verdict should warn other cities in rapidly growing San Bernardino and Riverside counties. Some have struggled to match the number of road and sidewalk projects with development of residential developments areas and new schools.

"A lot of cities were watching this case, and they should be," Homampour said. "The safety of the children takes priority. When city leaders know a street is used by a high volume of students and cars, even if it's five miles from the school, there needs to be sidewalks. [At A.B. Miller], the school's perimeter had sidewalks, but the streets outside it were like Dodge City."

"A court decision like this could affect public policy," said Pat Mead, director of the San Bernardino County Public Works Department.

Mead said a state program, "Safe Routes to School," provides an estimated $20 million annually to counties and cities. San Bernardino County received funding for five projects, estimated at from $120,000 to $200,000 each. Four to six other proposed projects in the county were not funded, he said.

"It's a big problem, because we haven't been doing the projects we aren't getting funded," Mead said. "There are a tremendous amount of safety issues, and it comes down to prioritization, based on accident history in the area and traffic. Children are always a priority, but to be honest, there's not always enough money to pay for all of these safety projects."

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