3 Years After Crash, Little Is Settled
Lindsay Strachan hurried through the stalls at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market on a recent Wednesday, hoping to find some premium Rainier cherries before they sold out.
A regular at the market, which occupies several Santa Monica streets twice a week, Strachan says his routine has changed since an old Buick LeSabre slammed into shoppers and toppled farm stands, killing 10 people and injuring 63 others.
“I look around a lot more,” he said.
It’s been nearly three years since the July 16, 2003, tragedy, and the Wednesday and Saturday market is as popular as ever. But little has been settled either on the legal front or in the victims’ personal lives.
George Russell Weller, the 86-year-old motorist who sparked a national debate about driving age limits, faces a criminal trial in September on 10 felony counts of vehicular manslaughter. Weller has pleaded not guilty, saying he mistook the gas pedal for the brake when his car crashed through the crowded downtown market.
About 50 victims and surviving relatives are waiting to see if a judge will dismiss the city of Santa Monica from their civil suit, which alleges the city failed to protect them. In the wake of the accident, Santa Monica was faulted by federal transportation regulators for a substandard traffic plan and inadequate safety precautions.
The city has since replaced the street barricades around the market with police cars while officials develop a permanent traffic plan.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys said the city wants to keep the focus on Weller so it can dodge responsibility. They said the city’s setup for the street market was an accident waiting to happen.
“The bigger the mistake the driver makes, the easier it is for the city to slip out the side door,” Michael Piuze, a plaintiffs’ attorney, said in a phone interview. “All the family members want is for the city to fix what is broke.”
The city’s attorneys, however, say that Santa Monica’s traffic plan was pre-approved by a certified engineer and that the accident was an unforeseeable fluke. They say all the plaintiffs’ lawyers really want is for someone to foot their clients’ medical bills.
“The lawyers aren’t blaming the driver because he doesn’t have enough insurance money,” said Jeanette Schachtner, an attorney for the city. “There’s the rub. The city of Santa Monica has deep pockets.”
Some of the accident victims are still bedridden from their injuries.
Shamsi Khani, 92, a market regular who used to make preserves from fruits and jar them as gifts for the farmers, must use a wheelchair.
The accident took place exactly one month after her 89th birthday. That day, the grandmother lay mangled and unconscious on a hospital operating table. Her right leg was broken. A large gash split the right side of her face. Her hip, neck and back were fractured in several places. Her right ear had been cut in half.
Once a self-sufficient widow, Khani can’t even cut her toenails now. Her live-in assistant wheels her to the market every Wednesday to shop for the Friday Shabbat dinners that she’s too sick to cook herself.
She had asked rescuers at the scene to skip her and save younger victims instead, her son, Daryoush “Daniel” Khani, told lawyers.
“She was very upset at me that I worked on her and kept her alive,” said the son, a doctor.
Khani’s spirit also has diminished since the accident. “I pray to die,” she said during a deposition in April, delivered in Farsi and in English.
Weller, now 89, also has not been the same since the accident, said attorney Timothy Walker, who represents Weller in the civil suits.
“This whole event has been devastating to him and to his wife,” Walker said. “He is certainly very sorry and remorseful for what occurred.”
Weller, who hadn’t gotten a traffic ticket in 73 years, has vowed never to drive again, his lawyers wrote in court filings. His car was destroyed in the accident and he doesn’t plan to replace it.
Two other defendants -- Step Up On Second, a nonprofit mental-health organization whose members volunteer at the market, and Bayside District Corp., a company in charge of downtown management and promotions -- argued unsuccessfully to be dismissed from the civil case.
Superior Court Judge Valerie Baker is expected to rule any day now on Santa Monica’s request to avoid liability. The decision will turn on whether the city’s traffic plan was reasonable, lawyers said.
“It takes a stretch of the imagination to foresee that someone’s going to drive a Buick 30 to 60 miles per hour through a crowded farmers market,” said Dana Fox, attorney for the city.
If Baker allows the civil case against the city to continue, it will go before a jury as early as January, Piuze said. If not, plaintiffs hope to appeal.
Meanwhile, the market continues to flourish. Still a mecca for chefs from L.A.'s top restaurants, it plays host to an average of 8,000 visitors every Wednesday, the busiest day.
Some market patrons said they don’t think it’s fair to sue the city because Weller was the one behind the wheel.
“It’s like suing the U.S. government when the [World Trade Center] buildings went down,” said Daiva Houston, 33, a Lithuanian immigrant who recently toted bags of lettuce in a double stroller with her son, Daniel. “In America, everybody likes to sue for everything.”
Even witnesses to the bloody accident seemed to have gotten over it.
“We’re all fine here,” said Neil Ims, a potato farmer who watched a 3-year-old die in front of his stand that day. “Everything’s back to normal now. I only remembered because I got a subpoena in the mail about a week ago.”
But plaintiffs’ attorney Neil Steiner said his clients spend their days in physical therapy or fighting horrible memories.
“They will never, ever get over it, I promise you that,” Steiner said. “This has been devastating to them.”