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Federal Regulators Lay Partial Blame for Farmer’s Market Tragedy on City

By Olin Ericksen
Staff Writer

August 4 – The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Tuesday that the City of Santa Monica is partially to blame for an elderly man having plowed his car through a downtown farmer’s market last summer, killing 10 and leaving 63 injured.

In a synopsis of its report, the board said that 87-year-old George Weller was the primary cause of the accident after he “accidentally” hit the accelerator instead of the brake, propelling his Buick Le Sabre through the mid-day market crowd on July 16, 2003.

The board could not determine if Weller's advanced age played factor in the crash.

“The major safety issues are the unintended acceleration of the accident vehicle, and the adequacy of temporary traffic control measures for the protection of pedestrian traffic in the Santa Monica Certified Farmer’s Market,” the synopsis states.

In what could be a potent boost for several wrongful death lawsuits filed against the City in the case, Santa Monica was faulted in the report for the "severity of the accident" for failing to erect "a barrier system to protect pedestrians shopping at Santa Monica's Certified Farmer's Market area from errant vehicles."

“Santa Monica’s temporary traffic plan for closure of Arizona Avenue to accommodate the farmer’s market was not consistent with established local, state or national guidelines and was inadequate to ensure the safe flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic in the area,” the report concludes.

City officials believe Weller was responsible for the accident. (See Statement from City Attorney Marsha Moutrie.)

As to Weller's fate, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office sent a letter to legal council for the NTSB stating that their office found the board's report incomplete, and that prosecutors intend to move forward with the charges of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence against Weller, whose preliminary hearing is scheduled Jan. 5.

The report “is not an analysis of criminal liability,” District Attorney Steve Cooley said in the letter.

"The report is incomplete in that it omits material witness statements which conflict with the report's conclusion...and does not reflect evidence which directly refutes the driver's version of events,” Cooley wrote.

The board also issued several recommendations to prevent any further similar tragedies from occurring including updating the Federal Highway Administration's guidelines on the use of barricades for road closures, the installation of data recorders in cars, and the installation of a temporary rigid barrier to prevent errant vehicles.
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