The City of Santa Monica will stand trial on a “failure to warn” theory of liability in the civil lawsuits concerning the injuries and deaths in the Farmers’ Market tragedy of July 2003, and that trial has been moved to downtown Los Angeles and set for May 17, 2007.
The suits for money damages brought by the more than 60 who were injured and on behalf of the 10 who died when the elderly George Russell Weller crashed through the downtown Farmers’ Market on Arizona Avenue will go to trial not only against the City, but also against Weller and Bayside District Corporation, the organization of downtown businesses on and near the Third Street Promenade. Plaintiffs’ lawyers estimate that total damages in the cases could exceed $100 million.
In July 2006, Judge Valerie Baker of the Los Angeles Superior Court, West District in Santa Monica, granted the City’s motion for summary judgment in the cases and ruled that a judgment of no liability should be entered in favor of the City of Santa Monica as a defendant 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.
But last Friday, January 19, Judge Baker ruled that “the court’s earlier design immunity ruling does not necessarily negate the claim of failure to warn of a dangerous condition…where the failure to warn is negligent and is an independent, separate concurring cause of the accident.” The court denied a summary judgment motion argued December 4 that the City had brought on the remaining “failure to warn” theory.
As reported in the Mirror two weeks ago, Judge Baker on January 5 denied a summary judgment motion by defendant Bayside District Corporation, holding that there were disputed issues of material fact as to Bayside. Notwithstanding any interim petitions for review of these rulings, the cases will proceed to trial against the City and Bayside as well as Weller.
In another development, the cases were transferred from Judge Baker in Santa Monica to Judge William McLaughlin in downtown Los Angeles. The court did not state a reason for the transfer, but lawyers speculated that it may have to do with the efficient distribution of court business inasmuch as these cases, taken together, could be a burden on the smaller Santa Monica courthouse.
At a hearing before Judge McLaughlin on Tuesday, January 23, a new trial date was set for May 17, 2007 (there had been a March trial date in Santa Monica). Plaintiffs are attempting to take Weller’s deposition testimony before trial, but he is thus far continuing to resist inasmuch as his criminal conviction is subject to an appeal and he claims the privilege against self-incrimination.
Other parties who were originally named as defendants in the lawsuits are Step Up on Second, Inc., a nonprofit whose people placed traffic control devices in the Farmers’ Market area, which settled for its $5 million insurance policy limits, and Southland Farmers’ Market Association, an organization of participating farmers, which was fully released from the cases on summary judgment.
Although the theories of liability asserted against Bayside (including general negligence) are broader than the more limited failure-to-warn theory remaining against the City, Bayside is known to have asserted (but not in the pending lawsuits) that the City has undertaken to indemnify it for any losses it may suffer in the lawsuits, and so it is at least possible that the City could ultimately (and derivatively) face liability even beyond the failure-to-warn claim.