At a press conference held Monday at the Santa Monica law offices of Greene, Broilet and Wheeler, three survivors of the disastrous accident that struck Santa Monica’s Farmer’s Market on July 16, 2003 spoke about their experiences and their reaction to the sentencing of defendant Russell Weller earlier that morning.
The sentence, handed down by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson, gives Weller five years’ probation and also requires him to pay restitution to the families of the victims, as well as several fines. Judge Johnson said that while Weller deserves to go to prison, his failing health makes the actual serving of prison time pointless.
Lily Hoffman, Ilona Lettich and Anthony Portillo, three of the 18 plaintiffs represented by Greene, Broilet and Wheeler, talked openly about the impact of the accident on their lives. Like all of the 38 plaintiffs with cases against the City of Santa Monica and the Bayside District, they are suing for general damages for pain and suffering.
Lily Hoffman, the daughter of Russian immigrants, lost her father, Movsha Hoffman, while her mother survived multiple fractures. “I’m really hoping we can focus on the Bayside District,” she said. “They are responsible for not protecting the people who go to the Farmers’ Market.” She also said that she felt the criminal trial was a “waste of time.” When asked how she felt about the policy of allowing the elderly to drive, she affirmed that there should be more curbs on elderly people driving.
Ilona Lettrich formerly operated a hair salon and also taught yoga. Since the Farmers’ Market tragedy, she has had problems with her hands and has not been able to work full time, resulting in loss of income.She felt that while it is important to prevent driving accidents, the real focus should be on keeping opened street areas such as the Farmers’ Market safe for pedestrians.
Anthony Portillo recalled how he was standing at a stall in the market, buying some fruit, “when out of the corner of my eye I saw Russell Weller’s car coming straight toward me. I just jumped out of the way and I was hit.” He sustained severe injuries to his lower extremities and although he has had physical therapy, he continues to experience physical difficulties.
“I think [the precautions in place at the market today] are still pretty inadequate,” Portillo said. “They have a police car and a truck [as a barrier]. It seems ineffective.”
Geoff Wells, the lead plaintiff trial counsel for the Farmers’ Market case, reiterated the position of his clients, that while Weller’s actions were a factor in the accident, the real culprits were the City and the Bayside District.
He mentioned that the barrier on the day of the accident was a mere plastic sawhorse with a two-by-four. “This case involves a complete failure by the City of Santa Monica and the Bayside District to protect the citizens.”
Wells explained that the City is “currently off the hook” due to a pretrial summary judgment that granted the City immunity from blame. However, the Bayside District and Weller both stand to be liable in the civil cases against them.
A series of civil trials is scheduled for spring 2007, involving over 38 separate lawsuits against the Bayside District and Weller.