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Woman sues L.A. after being struck by a car on a street where tents block the sidewalk

A homeless encampment on Gower Street
A Valley Village woman sued the city, saying she was struck by a vehicle on Gower Street, where an encampment lined the sidewalks and the median.
(David Zahniser / Los Angeles Times)

A Valley Village woman has sued the city of Los Angeles, saying she was struck by a car after venturing into a Hollywood street where a homeless encampment was blocking city sidewalks.

Debra Todd, 64, sustained injuries to her head, hip, back, arm and leg when she was hit by a Nissan heading south on Gower Street at the 101 Freeway overpass, according to the lawsuit filed earlier this week.

The incident occurred on Oct. 4, 2020, as Todd was crossing Gower. Todd said she had gone to the overpass to distribute sandwiches, potato chips and water to people living at the freeway encampment.

“Because of the encampment, you couldn’t walk on the sidewalk. You had to walk on the street,” she said. “There was no light or stop sign anywhere at Gower where I got hit.”

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A sweeping ordinance outlawing camping around parks, libraries and other facilities was approved last week by the Los Angeles City Council.

Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, declined to discuss the lawsuit’s allegations. “We will review the complaint and have no further comment at this time,” he said.

The legal filing comes just a few days after Mayor Eric Garcetti signed a law allowing the City Council to remove encampments that pose a public safety threat or are within 500 feet of a freeway overpass. A council vote will be required before enforcement can begin at a particular location.

Under the ordinance, the city can also clear encampments that block wheelchair access, as required under the Americans With Disabilities Act — an action that would not require a council vote.

Backers of the ordinance have portrayed it as humane, saying any enforcement would be accompanied by street engagement teams offering shelter and services. Foes say it would criminalize homelessness and spur the city to issue citations to those who are least capable of paying.

Todd, the lawsuit’s plaintiff, told The Times she had been attempting to get from one side of Gower to the other when she and another person, a homeless man with whom she was walking, were hit by the car. At the time, the median on Gower was also filled with tents, she said.

Todd was transported to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, while the male victim declined medical treatment, according to a report prepared by the Los Angeles Police Department. The driver of the Nissan stayed on the scene and told authorities that she had been going 20 mph.

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The car did not have visible damage on its front bumper area, the report said.

Todd’s lawsuit accuses the city of allowing the encampment at the 101 overpass on Gower to remain for a “substantial amount of time,” creating dangerous conditions for pedestrians and drivers. The city also did not post signs warning drivers that there would be “excessive foot traffic” in the street due to the encampments, the lawsuit said.

On Tuesday, the sidewalks and median at the overpass were still filled with tents, furniture and other objects.

Alan Turlington, Todd’s lawyer, said his client suffered a mild traumatic brain injury, which could leave her with a permanent disability and require future medical treatment. Todd expects to lose earning capacity as a result of that injury, he said.

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The issue of homeless encampments at freeway overpasses has come up previously as part of a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by a group of downtown residents and business owners who say the city and county have failed to address the region’s homelessness crisis.

After a month of intensive outreach, most homeless campers have been removed from the Venice boardwalk and given shelter, if only temporarily.

At one point last year, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction ordering the city and county to move homeless people away from freeways, arguing that they were being exposed to health hazards caused by vehicle emissions.

In response, the city and county reached an agreement to create more than 6,000 new beds, which have been opening at a steady pace over the last year. The judge later withdrew the order.

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With the city’s new anti-camping ordinance taking effect next month, some council members have already indicated they intend to renew their focus on areas around freeways.

Councilman Curren Price, who represents a portion of South Los Angeles, said he intends to introduce resolutions targeting streets that intersect with the 110 Freeway, which runs the length of his district.

“We definitely want to target that area from Washington [Boulevard] all the way down to Manchester [Avenue],” he said.


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