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More Suits to Be Filed in Farmers Market Tragedy

By Blair Clarkson
Staff Writer

July 2 -- One of the nation's leading plaintiff law firms will file civil lawsuits against the City and the Bayside District within the next two weeks, as well as new claims against additional parties, on behalf of victims of last year's Farmers Market tragedy.

The filings come nearly six months after the City rejected government claims and just days before the one-year anniversary of 87-year-old George Russell Weller's deadly trip down Arizona Avenue last July 16, which left ten people dead and more than 60 injured.

In addition to the lawsuits against the City and Bayside for failing to provide adequate protection for pedestrians, "we also have named the DMV, and will probably be naming the automobile manufacturer," said Geoff Wells, a lead attorney for Greene, Broilett, Panish & Wheeler, LLP.

Although Wells notes they will likely be dismissed, the firm may include claims against the DMV for renewing Weller's license despite a spotty record and the manufacturer of his Buick LeSabre for possible product liability stemming from an unproven accelerator malfunction.

Following the incident, Weller -- who will also be named in a civil negligence claim -- supposedly stated he thought the gas pedal got stuck or malfunctioned, preventing him from stopping the car as it barreled through the downtown market.

In January, he pleaded not guilty to 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.

The City, however, will be the focus of this month's filings by the prestigious law firm, which won the highest product liability verdict in history when six burn victims received $4.9 billion from GM in 1999 after the car they were in burst into flames.

"The main claim against the City of Santa Monica is for a dangerous condition on public property in that they failed to take the proper steps to provide adequate safety and security on Arizona Avenue," Wells said. "When you have a huge crowd out there on the street you need more than wooden sawhorses on the other ends of the street.

"It's also completely foreseeable to the City that you're going to have drivers who get confused and drive down that roadway," he added, "and you need to take necessary precautions to block off Arizona Avenue."

Wells suggested the City should have installed moveable metal bollards on either end of Arizona, much like those that exist along the Promenade, to prevent vehicles from entering the crowded market.

"I believe discovery will show that there are a number of inexpensive, easy fixes for moveable barriers to be put on Arizona Avenue," he said.

The City Attorney's office did not return calls for comment on the claims.

To aid in their civil cases, Wells and attorneys for other injured parties have been pushing to obtain the nearly 1,000-page California Highway Patrol investigation report, but were rebuffed by the court last week because of the pending criminal case against Weller.

"I anticipate at some point that police report is going to have to be released," Wells said. "People have to be able to interview the witnesses and get statements and do depositions."

Among other vital pieces of information, the hefty report includes crime scene photographs, police interviews with Weller, witness statements and vehicle inspection data.

"We've been trying to get that report released for almost six months," Wells said.

Although the civil cases will be filed during the week of July 12, it is "too soon" to know when a civil trial could begin, according to Kathy Pinckert, director of marketing and media relations for the firm.

"It's not like in a criminal case where you have the right to a fair and speedy trial," she said. "The civil justice system works much differently, and much slower. It could be years.

"Because there are so many people filing lawsuits," she added, "the judge will consolidate the cases to make it easier to manage all of them. That saves the court time."

As for possible monetary damages against the City, Wells said it was also "too early to tell" what they could total.

"Each different client will have a different damage claim," he said. "We have people who are injured, we have family members of people who have been killed, and each one of those claims will have a different value," based on medical bills, lost income, and pain and suffering.

The firm represents eight injured victims (Sandra Ellen Bacal, Sara Dobbins, Benny Gong, Holley Hankinson, Ilona Lettrich, Anthony Portillo, Dina Richter and Olivia Wun) and the families of three people killed that day (Kevin McCarthy, his wife Diana Gong McCarthy, and Leroy Lattier).

"I feel we have a good case against the City, because the City has engineers that are in the best position to analyze the traffic safety issues created by having a market with people out on the street, and they did not do anything to protect that, Wells said.

"They dropped the ball," he said. "A wooden sawhorse is not going to cut it."
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