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CHP Expert Tells of Pedal Error in Market Crash

The investigator backs the contention that the tragedy was an accident, but says driver caused 10 deaths because he failed to stop for a prior crash.

September 23, 2006|John Spano | Times Staff Writer

Ten people died because octogenarian George Russell Weller confused the gas pedal with the brakes and raced his big Buick through an open-air market three years ago, a top state accident investigator testified Friday.

Bolstering the defense argument that the incident was an accident, not a crime, Richard Wong said the California Highway Patrol investigation he headed came to the conclusion that "pedal error" by Weller, now 89, is the best explanation for the Santa Monica Farmers' Market tragedy.

But Wong also told jurors that Weller was the cause of the 10 deaths, because he failed to stop after he bumped another car before he sped into the market.

Weller is charged with 10 counts of manslaughter. Deputy Dist. Atty. Ann Ambrose is trying to show that the accident, which also injured more than 60 people, was the result of gross negligence.

It was a day of fine shades of meaning as Wong touched on the elements central to the prosecution and defense cases.

Wong, who testified for two days, is one of California's top accident investigators. He headed the team that produced a 900-page analysis of the July 16, 2003, incident.

Witnesses testified that Weller was involved in a fender-bender with a Mercedes-Benz, then accelerated into the market on Arizona Avenue. The prosecution has suggested that he was fleeing the scene of the earlier accident.

Pedal error explains the acceleration, Wong testified, but not the cause of the incident.

"The cause was not that," Wong shot back when defense attorney Mark Borenstein read from the CHP report that concluded the cause was pedal error. "The cause was that Mr. Weller failed to stop after he hit the Mercedes, in violation of the vehicle code."

Wong has conducted 9,500 accident investigations and said he had never before seen an actual case of pedal error. He confirmed the CHP report's definition of pedal error, read to the jury by Borenstein:

"When the brain is too busy, it simply assumes muscles are performing as ordered and ignores signals [otherwise] ... even when the opposite may be the case.... The brain remembers the neuromuscular command it gave, rather than the responses to that command."

Wong stressed that the inquiry found no evidence that Weller ever hit the brakes and concluded that he had actively steered the Buick at times as he drove 900 feet down Arizona.

The defense contends that the air bag deployed in the middle of the market, knocking Weller's hands and feet loose. Wong testified that an air bag deflates in 0.2 of a second, leaving Weller time to grab the wheel again before the car came to a rest, one body blocking the windshield and another under the wheels.

Wong said the investigation ruled out mechanical problems, environmental problems and medical factors, leaving only human error.

"Who caused the car to drive through he market, killing 10 people?" Ambrose asked.

"The driver of the Buick," Wong replied. "Mr Weller."

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