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Liability Removed in Crash at Market

A judge rules that Santa Monica's traffic plan was reasonable despite accident that killed 10.

July 06, 2006|Tanya Caldwell | Times Staff Writer

The city of Santa Monica does not have to defend itself in a lawsuit filed over the 2003 farmers market crash that killed 10 people and injured 63 others, a Superior Court judge ruled.

Dozens of victims and surviving relatives blamed the city for failing to protect them when a car barreled through street barricades and into the downtown Santa Monica Farmers' Market.

A year later, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the city was partly to blame for the accident because it used ineffective barriers and a nearly 20-year-old traffic plan that didn't comply with national, state or city guidelines.

But Monday, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Valerie Baker found that Santa Monica is "immune from liability" because its traffic plan for running the market was reasonable and had been approved by a certified traffic engineer. The decision confirms a tentative ruling she issued in the city's favor a month ago.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they will appeal.

Baker "basically ruled that a one-page document was an approved traffic-control plan," said Geoff Wells, a plaintiff's attorney. The traffic engineer "had no experience with road closures at that time. He had no idea what to do and he didn't do the right thing."

Attorneys for about 50 plaintiffs had argued that the city's "handwritten" traffic plan should be disregarded.

The city said that traffic engineer Ron Fuchiwaki taught market supervisor Laura Avery how to design traffic plans and approved her drawing in 1987.

But Fuchiwaki could not verify, when questioned in a deposition, that the plan the city uses was the one he approved 19 years ago.

"When you couldn't identify what you approved, how the hell do you know you approved it?" asked attorney Neil Steiner.

The traffic plan remains in use for the market, which is held every Wednesday and Saturday on Arizona Avenue between 4th and 2nd streets. Police cars have replaced the wooden barriers that had blocked off the market at the time of the crash.

Deputy City Atty. Jeanette Schachtner said there was only one traffic plan that the market could use: the one that Fuchiwaki approved.

"It's a good result," because municipalities are in a bind that there aren't isn't enough room for events, Schachtner said.

Last month, two defendants argued unsuccessfully to be dismissed from the civil case.

George Russell Weller, 89, is scheduled to go on trial in September on 10 felony counts of vehicular manslaughter.

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