Partner Jennifer Russell Successfully Defended Her Client with A Jury Verdict Finding Of 80% On A City for A Dangerous Condition

The case was a tragic accident in which Ms. Russell’s client struck and seriously injured a 17-year-old a student who was walking to school. The student sustained serious life-threatening injuries along with a traumatic brain injury, permanent disability and disfigurement. The Trial began on December 6 in the Murrieta courthouse and verdict was reached on February 6, 2020. The case was tried before the Hon. Judge Angel Bermudez.

Facts: The defendant driver’s vehicle struck the plaintiff while he was crossing the street. Both Plaintiff and Ms. Russell alleged that there was a dangerous condition at the location of the accident involving an in-pavement lighted crosswalk, so the City of Hemet was also sued. The crosswalk included flashing lights on two posts under crosswalk signs and lights embedded in the ground but was without a stop sign or traffic signal. Allegations against the city were that they failed to do a proper engineering investigation or evaluation before installing the crosswalk at the location.

Plaintiff and Ms. Russell argued the intersection was dangerous due to vehicle queues, congestion, and obstructed sight lines that exist during the morning and afternoon school commutes. Plaintiff’s counsel further argued that something more protective for pedestrians, such as a barrier fence, should have also been installed. The city contended that the driver improperly operated his vehicle because he was speeding, failed to yield to a pedestrian, was a distracted driver and was not wearing his driving glasses. The city also contended that the crossing location was not dangerous and that no other pedestrians had been hit by any vehicles after the lighted, marked crosswalk was installed until the time that plaintiff was hit.

Ms. Russell conceded liability but argued it was an accident whereas the City’s conduct was willful. She also contended that the crossing location was dangerous, and the accident would not have occurred if the city had installed a barrier fence.

Damages: Plaintiff’s injuries were significant.  He remained in a coma for several weeks with many fractures and was paralyzed from his left side down.  Plaintiff suffered severe orthopedic and neurological injuries.  Plaintiff suffered a subdural hematoma, fractured pelvis on the right side, fractured cheek on the left side, collapsed lung, stroke in the right side of his brain, partial paralysis and speech impairment. At the time of trial there was emotional testimony that plaintiff’s present injuries included, but are not limited to, continuous headaches, vision impairment, inability to support his own weight, severe depression, and loss of fine motor skills in his left arm and left leg.  Plaintiff’s lifecare plan was $20 million and his past medical special damages were $1.5 million.  A conservative estimate for future loss of earning capacity, even at minimum wage with cost of living increases, was $1.5 – $2 million.  Therefore, special damages alone presented at $23 – $24 million.  Testimony involving plaintiff’s injuries and future was very emotional. Plaintiff’s counsel argued for a range of damages and when calculated out the total amount of damages that plaintiff was seeking was approximately $130 million.

Result: After extended testimony by witnesses, city council members, school district officials, concerned citizens and technical engineers Ms. Russell argued to the jury that this was a case of shared responsibility. While the driver of the car glanced away at the time of the accident if the city had conducted the proper traffic studies and had proper design approval then the accident would not have occurred. She argued that her client had taken responsibility, but the city failed to do so and should be held more accountable, she argued that she believed the city should be found more than 50% at fault and she believed the city should have the majority of liability.

After 3 days of deliberations, the jury found (10-2) that there was a dangerous condition and that the city and the driver were negligent. The jury apportioned 80 percent fault to the city and only 20 percent to the defendant driver. The jury awarded plaintiff $25,656,686.58.

Prior to trial, the defendant driver’s insurance policy limits of $15,000 were offered and the defendant driver was pleased with the outcome and the finding of the dangerous condition against the city.