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Ruling lets victims of farmers market crash sue Santa Monica

Times Staff Writer

Victims of the 2003 farmers market tragedy can sue the city of Santa Monica over the traffic catastrophe, which left 10 people dead and 63 injured, a state appeals court has ruled.

The court reinstated allegations that the city had failed to adequately shield marketgoers from motorist George Russell Weller, who was 86 when he crashed his car through barricades and into crowds of pedestrians at the popular open-air market on July 16. A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge had ruled earlier that the city had legal immunity from the suit, which also names as defendants Weller and the agency that runs the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market.

Weller, who is confined to his home and receives 24-hour nursing care, was convicted last year of 10 counts of manslaughter for one of the worst pedestrian tragedies in U.S. history. A jury decided he acted criminally rather than accidentally.

On Tuesday, Weller filed court papers to appeal the conviction.

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The trial spurred debate over whether the state adequately monitors aging motorists whose driving skills deteriorate.

“It was a terrible accident, a tragedy for the people who were injured. But the city of Santa Monica and the taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for Mr. Weller’s acts,” said Jeanette Schachtner, deputy Santa Monica city attorney.

At the time of the crash, wooden sawhorses were used to block off Arizona Avenue for the outdoor market. A year after the deaths, the National Transportation Safety Board found that the city was partly to blame for the accident, because the movable barriers were ineffective and a nearly 20-year-old traffic plan for the area didn’t comply with national, state or city guidelines. After the tragedy, the sawhorses were replaced by city vehicles.

A judge ruled earlier that the city was immune from suit because it had drawn up a market map, indicating officials had considered safety. The state Court of Appeal found that the map did not show the barricades, casting doubt on the city’s safety plan.

Attorney Gregory Moreno, who represents market crash victims, said the city didn’t do enough to protect pedestrians from drivers who make mistakes, are confused or are drunk.

He pointed out that Arizona crosses the Third Street Promenade, the popular outdoor retail area where bollards, or heavy posts extending upward from the pavement, are used to keep out motor vehicles.

“It was an accident waiting to happen,” Moreno said. “When they put them on 3rd Street, they should have put them on Arizona too.”

Moreno represents survivors of two of the dead. Veronica Alvarez-Reza, the mother of an infant killed in the crash, blames herself for Weller’s actions, Moreno said.

“She feels that had she stayed home that day, this wouldn’t have happened. She’s now at the point that she’s hysterically protective of her other children. She literally won’t let them out of her sight,” Moreno said.

His other client, Gloria Gonzalez, left two children who are being raised by relatives.

In the appeal filing, lawyers for Weller, who will turn 91 on Dec. 7, said two jurors committed misconduct during deliberations when they paced off 240 feet in the downtown courthouse -- the distance Weller traveled in his 1992 Buick before crashing through the barricades and entering the market.

Lawyer Mark Borenstein also argued that the court improperly excluded a key witness for the defense who would have testified to Weller’s “deteriorated psychomotor skills” and “neuropsychological deficiencies.”

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john.spano@latimes.com


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