A jury Thursday ordered Caltrans and the city of Los Angeles to pay $9.1 million to a man who suffered brain damage after he swerved to avoid debris and lost control of his bicycle on Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades.
Robert Jeffrey Watts was seriously injured in July 2014 as he rode toward his home in Topanga Canyon, following signs that instructed cyclists to ride on the shoulder of the highway between the travel lanes and the cliff.
Watts came across a pile of sand and rocks on the pavement, and steered into the travel lane to avoid the debris. He was struck by a truck’s side mirror and lost control of his bicycle, resulting in a crash that left him with a “significant amount of brain damage,” according to a complaint filed in 2015 in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Watts was an experienced bicyclist who rode to his office in Culver City for years to keep fit, said his attorney, Boris Treyzon. Watts, who ran a successful freelance camera company, was left unable to work.
The $9.1-million judgment is one of the largest bicycle-related jury awards in Los Angeles history. The city’s legal costs linked to bicycle crashes have skyrocketed in recent years, belying officials’ efforts to brand L.A. as bike-friendly.
“The city promotes bike riding, but if they promote it, you have to expect that they’ll keep it safe,” Treyzon said. “If you know that something is dangerous, shouldn’t you fix it?”
Sand and debris frequently roll down the cliff and onto the pavement in the area known as the Tramonto slide. State and local officials had been aware for years that the debris could create a dangerous condition along a route that is popular with bicyclists, Treyzon said.
Caltrans, which owns the highway, had hired Los Angeles to sweep the pavement at least once a month and keep it free of debris, but jury testimony and records left it unclear how often the work was performed, Treyzon said.
During the trial, he said, two city street sweepers testified that at the Tramonto slide, “they would simply swing around … and ignore it,” rather than remove the sand, gravel and rocks from the roadway.
The jury found the city 60% liable and Caltrans 40% liable for Watts’ crash, according to the jury verdict form.
A judge will decide how the $9.1-million judgment is split between the city and the state, said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer.
“We are reviewing all our options, including appealing,” Wilcox said.
Caltrans spokeswoman Lauren Wonder said the state settled with Watts before the trial began. An appeal is moot, she said. The settlement was for $999,999, Treyzon said.
Watts’ legal team offered to settle with the city before the trial, but officials “wanted to roll the dice,” Treyzon said.
The injury to Watts’ frontal lobe has left him unable to remember the week that preceded or the month that followed the crash. He has sensitivity to light, short-term memory problems and no sense of smell, Treyzon said.
In the courtroom, “the city blamed everyone but themselves,” Treyzon said. “Until the very end, they refused to take responsibility.”