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State to Pay $10 Million in Deaths of 4 at Aqueduct

August 25, 2005|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

The state will pay $10 million to relatives of a mother and her three children whose 2003 deaths in a plunge into the California Aqueduct could have been prevented had the state installed a $26,000 guardrail extension, an attorney in the case said Wednesday.

The state will pay one-quarter of the settlement in the wrongful death case to the woman's husband, Raul Morales. His wife, Marisol, 32, and their children Raul Jr., 9, Silvia, 5, and Oscar, 1, were killed when their pickup truck lost control on California 138, or Pearblossom Highway, in the Antelope Valley. The truck smashed through a barbed-wire fence and careened off a 30-foot embankment into the swift-flowing channel.

The remainder of the money -- $7.5 million -- will cover extensive medical costs for 12-year-old Rosa Ramirez, a niece who was revived by Los Angeles County firefighters.

Carl A. McMahan, who represents surviving family members, said he was satisfied with the deal, in large part because the state would cover long-term, round-the-clock nursing care for Rosa, who is now a quadriplegic.

The settlement also called for the California Department of Transportation to repair the section of the California Aqueduct bridge near Palmdale that claimed the four members of the Morales family, McMahan said.

"The good news is that after we filed the case, they [the state] took remedial action and did extend the guardrail, which was part of our complaint," McMahan said. "But ... this tragedy was entirely avoidable."

As part of the suit, McMahan obtained a May 2001 Caltrans memo that said the aqueduct bridge was dangerous and prescribed extending the guardrail. Four months after the Feb. 19, 2003, accident, Caltrans issued a work order for the 275-foot guardrail, McMahan said. The cost was $26,000.

"They did it in response to our lawsuit, period," McMahan said.

Attorney Ralph E. Brown, who represented the state, did not return calls for comment.

McMahan said a 9-year-old Rialto girl suffered critical injuries in 1998 at the same spot when her mother swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle and plunged into the canal. The aqueduct cuts through the Mojave Desert, carrying water from Northern California to the arid southern portion of the state.

Shanika Lister, strapped into her seat belt, remained underwater for as long as 25 minutes before an L.A. County firefighter rescued her. She survived but also is paralyzed.

That same firefighter, Ron McFadden, participated in Rosa Ramirez's rescue. McFadden and Firefighter Jeff Britton applied a modified breathing apparatus typically used in house fires to try to revive the four children, who had been trapped underwater.

Television news helicopters captured the frantic scene. Only Rosa survived.

A spate of accidents along California 138, long considered one of the state's most dangerous roads, led victims' families to erect billboards branding it "Deathtrap Highway."

The accident involving the Morales family occurred 23 miles from the spot where screenwriter Gary Devore drove off the Antelope Valley Freeway and into the aqueduct in 1997. His body was found in his submerged car a year later.

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