Civil damage lawsuits arising out of the 2003 Farmers’ Market tragedy on Arizona Ave. in Santa Monica may be delayed as a result of legal tensions between those cases and the pending criminal proceedings against the driver of the car which crashed through the open-air market allegedly killing ten and injuring dozens more. The driver, George Russell Weller, has invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination and so refused to give deposition testimony in the civil actions, thereby frustrating the ability of the remaining civil defendants to prepare for trial, according to defense counsel.
On April 10, 2006, Judge Valerie Baker heard arguments on the motion of civil defendants, including the City of Santa Monica, to continue the July 10, 2006 trial date in the first six cases set for trial (of 36 pending), so that the civil cases would be delayed (if the motion were granted) until after the criminal proceedings were concluded. The criminal case is, coincidentally, also set for trial July 10, although that date is subject to change. Judge Baker urged the parties moving for the trial continuance to formally seek a grant of “use immunity” from the prosecutor in favor of Weller so that Weller’s testimony in the civil cases could not be used in the criminal case, thereby nullifying his constitutional objection to giving testimony in preparation for the trial of the damage actions.
Judge Baker took the defendants’ motion to continue the July 10 trial under advisement, stating that she would consider whether to continue the trial (but only to September 5, 2006) or merely continue the pending motion to May 22, 2006 (when other hearings are already scheduled) – in either event, with an eye to seeing whether the prosecutor in the criminal case would make the immunity grant that would moot the civil defendants’ grounds for seeking any further delay.