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Court Rules City Not Liable for Farmers’ Market Injuries:

The court has determined that a judgment of no liability should be entered in favor of the City of Santa Monica as a defendant in the civil lawsuits brought by the persons injured and killed in the Farmers’ Market tragedy of July 2003.  In granting the City’s motion for summary judgment, the Los Angeles Superior Court, West District in Santa Monica, determined that there is no disputed issue of material fact in the case and that Santa Monica is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.

Similar motions by defendants Bayside District Corporation and Step Up On Second, Inc. have been denied; a summary judgment motion brought by defendant Southland Farmers’ Market Association is still pending.

“The City of Santa Monica, as a result of this ruling, has walked away – temporarily – from very significant liability,” said lawyer Michael J. Piuze, who argued against the motion on behalf of the plaintiffs.  “I respectfully disagree with the court’s decision,” he said, “and I strongly expect that all plaintiffs will appeal.”

Three years ago this month, a car driven by the elderly George Russell Weller crashed through the downtown Farmers Market on Arizona Ave., leaving ten persons dead and more than 60 injured.  Criminal charges were filed against Weller, and remain pending today.  The many civil lawsuits for money damages brought by the injured and on behalf of the dead have been consolidated for pre-trial proceedings.  Plaintiffs allege liability for the tragedy on the part of the City (which provided twice-weekly markets at the location), Bayside (the organization of downtown businesses), Step Up (a nonprofit whose people placed traffic control devices in the area) and Southland (an association of participating farmers), in addition to Weller.

The City’s motion, and the ruling by Superior Court Judge Valerie L. Baker, are based upon the doctrine of governmental immunity for design defects, under which a municipality that properly studies and approves a plan or design, such as a traffic control plan, is immune from suit for defects in the plan that later come to light.  In this case, the City argued that Santa Monica traffic engineer Ronald K. Fuchiwaki approved such a plan in 1987 and that the approval was beyond dispute, thus entitling the City to design defect immunity. 

Lawyer Piuze argued at the court hearing June 8 that when Fuchiwaki was shown the plan (a one-page freehand sketch) at his deposition, he said he had never seen it before and he did not know whether he approved it.  Plaintiffs contended that this deposition testimony was inconsistent with Fuchiwaki’s sworn declaration in support of the motion, thereby creating a disputed issue of fact which would preclude summary judgment and send the cases to trial.

After taking the City’s motion under advisement for almost a month, Judge Baker agreed with the City.

The design defect defense is not available to the other, non-governmental, defendants.  The motions of Bayside and Step Up were based, in essence, on the argument that the City had taken full responsibility for the Farmers Markets, leaving them with none.  The court’s denial of these motions means that the cases against them will proceed to trial, now scheduled for January 2007.

At least Bayside has asserted that the City has undertaken to indemnify it for any losses it may suffer in the lawsuits, and so the court’s ruling granting the City’s motion for summary judgment may not fully close the door on City liability, even apart from the possibility of an appeal by plaintiffs.

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