Millions of dollars in liability once again face the City of Santa Monica in the civil suits arising out of the July 2003 Farmers’ Market tragedy, after the California Court of Appeal last Friday reversed the summary adjudication that had been entered in the City’s favor in July 2006.
The appellate court ruled that “the details surrounding” the handwritten sketch offered by the City as its traffic control plan “are fraught with sufficient uncertainty to raise a reasonable inference that it [the sketch] might not be the plan approved by [traffic engineer] Fuchiwaki.” The ruling does not establish the City’s liability, but only requires that the issue be determined by a jury at trial rather than by a judge before trial.
Jeanette Schachtner of the Santa Monica City Attorney’s office said that the court had “ruled on purely procedural grounds and not on the merits” and the appeal involved “a factual dispute that needs to be resolved in the trial court.” She said that the City does not expect to petition the Supreme Court for review, but that it will address the issue in the trial court where it expects to prevail.
The ruling means that the City will be a full participant in the trial, now set for February 11, 2008 in Los Angeles, to determine liability for money damages in lawsuits brought by the more than 60 who were injured and on behalf of the 10 who were killed when the elderly George Russell Weller drove his car through the downtown Farmers’ Market on Arizona Avenue. Weller and the Bayside District are also defendants. Plaintiffs’ lawyers estimate that total damages in the cases could exceed $100 million.
The October 12 unpublished decision came about in an unusual procedural context. In July 2006, superior court judge Valerie Baker, sitting in Santa Monica, ruled that the plaintiffs’ main claims, which were based on “dangerous condition of public property,” were barred by the design immunity doctrine – a defense intended to prevent a jury from second-guessing the decision of a public entity by reviewing the identical questions of risk that had previously been considered by the government officers who adopted or approved the plan or design. Plaintiffs petitioned for appellate review of that ruling, but their petitions were denied.
Then the City moved in superior court for a summary judgment that would have completely removed it from the case, but Judge Baker ruled in January 2007 that the City might be held liable on some alternate theory, such as failure to warn of a dangerous condition. So the City petitioned for appellate review of that decision, and the court of appeal then agreed to review not only the January 2007 ruling but the July 2006 ruling as well.
Upon that review, the appeals court determined that the July 2006 ruling was in error because there were triable issues of material fact as to (1) a causal relationship between the plan or design and the injuries/deaths and (2) discretionary approval of the plan or design prior to construction – two elements needed to invoke the design immunity defense. Those issues will now go to the jury.
Although the City had never been fully eliminated from the case (Santa Monica Mirror, January 25, 2007), the October 12 decision is important because it restores the plaintiffs’ strongest theory of liability. And that may motivate the City to take a keener interest in settlement discussions than it had displayed when it seemed the “dangerous condition of public property” claim would never get to the jury.