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City Off Hook in Farmers Market Crash, Judge Rules

By Olin Ericksen and Jorge Casuso
Staff Writers

July 4 -- In a stunning decision, a Superior court judge ruled Monday that the City of Santa Monica should not stand trial for the tragic crash at a downtown farmers market that killed ten people and injured more than 60 three years ago.

Upholding her June 7 tentative ruling, Judge Valerie L. Baker dismissed cases charging the City was responsible when George Russell Weller’s Buick LeSabre tore through the market at 60 miles per hour July 16, 2003.

The ruling -- which will be appealed -- comes nearly two years after an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found that that the City was partially to blame for the incident.

“The City has established that it is immune from liability,” Baker wrote in an unusually long 19-page decision upholding her tentative ruling. “The Plaintiffs did not raise a triable issue as to whether any ‘changed conditions’ resulted in the creation of a dangerous condition.

“Largely because of formal and evidentiary effects, the Moving Party did not meet its burden of establishing… that Santa Monica Farmers’ Market was not in a dangerous condition on the date of the accident,” Baker concluded.

City officials hailed the ruling.

“As the judge noted, I think this was a thoroughly well-briefed, well-critiqued case," said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie. "The judge took great care to apply the law correctly.

"I believe that she reached the legally correct decision and it will be upheld on appeal," Moutrie said.

Attorneys for Green, Broillet, Panish & Wheeler LLP -- the prominent local law firm representing the farmers market victims -- said they were stunned by the judge’s decision, which they plan to appeal.

“It’s a shocking decision that she’s going to let the City out of the case,” said Geoff Wells, one of the attorneys for 14 plaintiffs injured or killed in the crash.

“That’s a real surprise,” Wells said. “We think the judge is wrong. We will appeal the ruling.”

The decision comes more than one week after Baker ruled that the agency that runs the Downtown -- the Bayside District Corporation -- must stand trial. (see story)

The judge found that, unlike the Bayside District Corporation, the City has statutory immunities.

The City argued that it had designed a traffic plan that addressed the risks posed by drivers to the crowds that gather at the farmers market, Baker agreed.

“The plan identifies the boundaries of the market and specifies the type and location of barricades and signs at each of the four street boundaries,” Baker wrote.

Plaintiffs tried to have the “traffic control plan” the City submitted as evidence removed from the record, arguing that the City’s “handwritten” design did not constitute a true traffic control plan.

“They have a claim of a handwritten control plan that is unsigned, undated and unapproved,” Wells told The Lookout Monday.

The judge, however, agreed with the City’s argument that the conditions at the market were not inherently dangerous and that a traffic plan, approved by its traffic engineer Ronald K. Fuchiwaki in 1987, entitles the City to immunity.

“Contrary to the Plaintiffs’ argument, the court finds that the City presented sufficient competent evidence to establish (the design) as the traffic plan,” Baker wrote. “The traffic control plan was properly approved by (Fuchiwaki), who had authority and discretion to approve the plan.”

Baker further ruled that “there is substantial evidence to support a finding the plan was reasonable.”

Baker also disagreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that Fuchiwaki gave contradictory deposition testimony.

“The undisputed evidence established Mr. Fuchiwaki’s qualifications and authority when he exercised his discretion to review and approve the plan,” Baker wrote.

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