$10.6 Million – Defective Roadway

Lu v. Department of Transportation

Facts

On Christmas Day‚ 1996‚ Plaintiff Lu and his wife‚ both visiting scholars from China‚ were driving southbound on the I-15 on their way home from a trip to the Grand Canyon. Plaintiff’s wife was driving a rented 1996 Buick Regal on a downgrade stretch of highway known as the "Baker Grade" when she was forced to steer left to avoid another car. The turning motion caused their car to drift onto the shoulder where Mrs. Lu lost control when she attempted to return to the road. Their car rolled over and Plaintiff Lu‚ her husband‚ was ejected and severely injured with Paraplegia. Plaintiff’s wife also suffered soft tissue damage to her neck and back.

Contentions

Plaintiff claimed that the road was in a dangerous condition at the time of the accident‚ causing plaintiffs to lose control and roll the vehicle. Specifically‚ the shoulder width was insufficiently narrow and an excessive drop off at the edge of pavement led to the loss of control. Additionally‚ the median shoulder sloped downward more severely than was called for in the design plans. Plaintiff alleged Defendant knew that the fatality rate on the Baker Grade was over 10 times higher than the rate on other rural freeways and that the majority of accidents were run-off-road accidents and roll-over accidents. The road had been recognized as dangerous for over 15 years by CalTrans‚ yet Defendant failed to make the necessary improvements. Although Plaintiff was not wearing his seatbelt at the time of the accident‚ Plaintiffs’ restraint system expert testified how Plaintiff Lu’s spinal injury occurred in the car before Plaintiff was ejected‚ rendering the seatbelt issue moot.

Defendant argued that (i) the cause of the accident was driver error‚ (ii) the road met all of the Defendant’s plans and was well-designed and maintained‚ (iii) the road was unique in the State and the accident statistics could not be meaningfully compared to those of other rural roads‚ and (iv) Plaintiff’s failure to wear his seatbelt caused or contributed to the severity of the injuries.

Damages

Medical costs were $180‚000 for past treatment and $2‚400‚000 for future life care. Plaintiffs’ loss of earnings were $20‚000 in the past and $780‚000 in the future.

Verdict: $10‚621‚394.00.

The jury found defendants 80% negligent and plaintiffs 20% negligent.

Motorists Get $10.6 Million for I-15 Crash

Tuesday‚ March 14‚ 2000
The Desert Dispatch
By Silvio J. Panta
Desert Dispatch Staff Writer

"It’s really a statement by the jury as to the road conditions…(The verdict) is going to‚ benefit the motorists who use this road."

BARSTOW — A jury has determined Caltrans should pay $10.6 million to a couple after a dangerous road condition on the Baker Grade caused an accident which left the man a paraplegic.

The motorist sued the state agency for failing to improve an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 15 where his car rolled over after the tire hit a vertical drop-off between the pavement and soft shoulder.

Caltrans officials are looking No whether an appeal should befiled in the case‚ Caltrans spokesman Jim Drago said.

"We believe the (Baker Grade is a safe section of road‚" Drago‚ attributed the cause of most accidents to drivers who become inattentive or fatigued‚" he said.

"That’s a pretty good stretch of road‚" he said. The verdict was handed down Thursday in Barstow Superior Court after a two-month trial about the Dec. 25‚ 1996‚ accident involving San Diego resident Paul Lu and his wife Yu You.

The jury found the department knew the road was in a dangerous condition as far back as the early 1980s and had never taken measures to improve it‚ said Karin Caves‚ plaintiff attorney spokeswoman‚ in a prepared statement.

During the trial‚ plaintiff attorneys Jeoffrey Robinson and Allan Davis said the Baker Grade has 12 times the fatal accident rate of the average road of its type in California. This information was based on Caltrans safety records‚ Caves said.

"When the road was first built in the 1960s‚ the daily traffic volume was approximately 5‚500 cars a day in each direction‚" she said. "Today‚ with Las Vegas booming as a vacation Mecca‚ the road is traveled by‚ more than 30‚000 cars a day."

Lu‚ a research botanist at the University of California‚ Davis‚ was traveling with friends on his way home from the Grand Canyon when the car rolled over. Lu was flung out of the car; Caves said.

The award includes $9.2 million for Lu’s injuries and $1.4 million for his wife‚ who suffered minor injuries‚ in compensatory damages.

"It’s really a statement by the jury as to the road conditions‚" Davis said Monday. "(Caltrans) had known about this for so long. (The verdict) is going to benefit the motorists who use this road."

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