Homeless Agency Still on Hook for Market Crash
By Olin Ericksen
July 10 -- With legal and medical bills still mounting, a tiny non-profit based in Santa Monica remains caught up in the aftermath of the tragic farmer’s market crash three years ago that killed 10 and injured 63.
Step Up on Second – which provides long-term support such as education, housing and job training to the mentally ill in Santa Monica – is one of two defendants still on the hook for an array of fees piling up since the July 16, 2003 crash.
When then 78-year-old George Weller reportedly mistook his gas pedal for the brake as he plowed through the crowd at nearly 60 miles-per-hour, it was Step Up On Second’s mentally ill trainees who set out barriers to protect the farmers market from traffic as part of paid vocational training contract with the City of Santa Monica.
In a stunning decision July 3, Superior Court Judge Valerie Baker released the City from prosecution, leaving Step Up On Second, which was following instructions under a contract with the City when its workers placed the barriers, and the Bayside District Corporation, which runs the Downtown, to stand trial.
“We were simply following the instructions of the City to put up the barriers,” said Todd Lipka, chief executive officer of Step Up On Second. “It is very worrisome.”
The tiny non-profit, which operates on an annual total budget of $4 million, could faces a dramatic hike in the insurance rates, Lipka said.
“We have insurance, but there’s about 30 different plaintiff’s involved in the suit,” he said, adding that some of those hurt and killed in the “terribly tragic” incident worked for the non-profit.
Step Up On Second, Lipka said, should have been released from prosecution along with the City, which successfully argued that Santa Monica had a valid traffic plan drafted in 1987 that gave the City immunity to prosecution. Plaintiffs have said they will appeal the decision.
“There are people saying they can’t believe that we are being sued as part of it,” said Lipka.
Geoff Wells, a partner for prominent local firm of Green, Broillet & Wheeler LLP, who is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, described Step Up On Second’s role in the crash as “small,” but he argued they should remain in the case, along with the Bayside District.
“When you have an accident, multiple causes contribute to the accident, and some parties – such as the City – are more responsible than others,” said Wells. “And everyone dropped the ball on this one.”
Wells described Step Up On Second’s role in the accidents as “less than 20 percent,” but added that because the non-profit signed a contract with the City, the agency should stand trial as one of the parties responsible for the crash.
“When you have a signed contract (related to safety) you should have had somebody (from the non-profit) take a look at what was being done,” said Wells. “Just because you haven’t had an accident yet, doesn’t mean they couldn’t foresee someone making a wrong turn and driving down that street.”
While Wells said the Bayside District Corporation played a larger role than Step Up On Second in the events leading up the crash, it is the City of Santa Monica that should be held most accountable, he said.
“Step Up On Second didn’t have the traffic engineers,” Wells said.
Since the accident, Lipka said his non-profit has taken a “less active role” at the farmers market, with police cars now blocking the entrance to the open-air street market Downtown.
“Our job coaches work with these individuals, who are all mentally ill, to provide what we feel is important job training,” Lipka said of his non-profit’s work.
Now, with the national spotlight shining on Santa Monica as the third anniversary of the most devastating crash in the City’s history is marked next week, the parties involved in the suit are bracing for what could be a prolonged legal brawl.
Meanwhile Lipka and attorneys provided by the agency’s insurance company are working hard to clear the non-profit’s name.
“The whole situation is unbelievable,” said Lipka.
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