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Case is closed on deadly day at market

May 22, 2008|Richard Winton and Martha Groves | Times Staff Writers

The city of Santa Monica and other defendants will pay $21 million to settle dozens of civil lawsuits arising from the July 2003 crash at the downtown Farmers' Market that left 10 people dead and 63 injured.

The amount includes a $6-million resolution, announced Wednesday, in the final two cases in the long-running legal controversy. It also includes $15.3 million for plaintiffs in 40 other cases that was agreed upon earlier this year.

The settlement, which the Santa Monica City Council approved at its meeting Tuesday night, closes the books on the most tragic episode in recent Santa Monica history.

In addition to the cost in lives and money, the accident raised questions about Santa Monica's traffic safety system for the market, which operates Wednesdays and Saturdays on Arizona Avenue between 2nd and 4th streets. A 2000 e-mail that surfaced during legal proceedings indicated that a Santa Monica police sergeant had expressed concerns. It referred to the traffic arrangement at one alley off 2nd Street as "a potential disaster waiting to happen."

George Russell Weller was 86 on July 16, 2003, when he crashed his 1992 Buick LeSabre through a wooden-and-plastic barricade and plowed through pedestrians at the popular open-air market.

Prosecutors in the criminal case against Weller suggested that he had been trying to flee a minor accident. Though lasting less than 20 seconds, the mayhem claimed, among others, an infant, a 3-year-old, a married couple, a homeless man and an octogenarian.

Weller was convicted last year of 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence for one of the worst pedestrian tragedies in U.S. history. The jury decided he acted criminally after seeing images of carnage, including a body draped over the hood of Weller's car and another beneath the wheels. Weller, now 91, was sentenced to five years' probation. He is confined to his home and receives 24-hour nursing care.

Under the latest settlement, Santa Monica's insurers and Bayside District Corp., a public-private company that oversees the city's downtown, will pay $1 million to the family of Movsha Hoffman, a 78-year-old woman who was killed by Weller's car, and $5 million to a family that lost a 62-year-old grandmother and a 7-month-old child. The two families will also split $152,000 remaining from Weller's $500,000 insurance policy.

"The No. 1 issue has always been public safety. The human error fact is foreseeable to traffic engineers and the city did not do a good job here," said Geoffrey S. Wells, who represented the Hoffmans and several other plaintiffs. "There is a sense of relief for the family after five years."

Attorney Geraldine "Dena" Weiss said the tragedy took an indescribable toll on the family of Molok Nabatian-Ghoulian, who was visiting the market that Wednesday with her 7-month-old grandson. Her daughter, Janet Nabatian-Davidesfahani, had walked across the street to get better reception on her cellphone. She watched in horror seconds later as Weller's runaway car struck down her mother and her infant son, Brandon. She and six other family members will share in the settlement.

A judge had initially ruled that the city was immune from lawsuits because it had drawn up a market map that took into account safety. But last October, the state Courts of Appeal reinstated allegations that the city had failed to adequately protect market-goers.

Deputy City Atty. Jeanette Schachtner said in a statement that the settlement was a good resolution for all involved.

"The city believes that it has no liability," she said. "But, in a case this big, trial results are difficult to predict. The settlement eliminates the risks and difficulties of trial and allows the victims, their families and the city to put this tragedy behind them and move forward."

The case focused nationwide attention on the issue of older drivers and on systems that fail to adequately screen such motorists for safety. But it also raised questions about municipal efforts to protect pedestrians at the increasing number of farmers markets nationwide.

At the time of the crash, wooden-and-plastic sawhorses were used to block off Arizona Avenue for the market. A year after the deaths, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the city was partly to blame for the accident because the movable barriers were ineffective and a nearly 20-year-old traffic plan for the area did not comply with national, state or city guidelines. (The state Courts of Appeal found that the map did not show the barricades, casting doubt on the city's safety plan.) After the tragedy, city vehicles were used as barricades instead of sawhorses -- a fix that continues to make many market-goers uneasy.

The city said Wednesday that it would consider changes to the barricading system. "We have consulted with traffic engineering experts and are willing to consider whatever the experts suggest," Schachtner said.

During the criminal trial, Weller's attorney had argued that his client lost control of his car after he mistook the accelerator for the brake. However, the sentencing judge said Weller "showed enormous indifference" and "unbelievable callousness."

Weller was convicted of vehicular manslaughter in the deaths of Lynne Weaver, 47, of Woodland Hills; Theresa Breglia, 50, of Bronx, N.Y.; Brandon Davidesfahani, 7 months, of Los Angeles; Molok Nabatian-Ghoulian, 62, of Los Angeles; Gloria Gonzalez, 35, of Venice; Movsha Hoffman, 78, of Santa Monica; Leroy Lattier, 55, a transient; Diana McCarthy, 41, and her husband, Kevin, 50, of New York; and Cindy Valladares, 3, of Los Angeles.

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richard.winton@latimes.com

martha.groves@latimes.com

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