The city of Sacramento, California, is liable to a pedestrian who suffered traumatic injuries after a car struck her in a dangerously designed crosswalk, a jury found last month, awarding the plaintiff $18 million. The amount will be capped at $6 million under an agreement between the parties. (Liu v. Seybert, No. 34-2008-00015075 (Cal., Sacramento Co. Super. Mar. 30, 2011).)
Cathy Liu, 25, was crossing a two-lane, one-way road in a crosswalk that wasn’t at an intersection when she was struck by a car. As a result, she has cognitive difficulties and is partially paralyzed.
Liu sued the city and the state, claiming the crosswalk was placed in the middle of a curve in the road, making it difficult for motorists to see pedestrians. A tree near the crosswalk obscured pedestrians’ view. Evidence showed that the department of transportation knew the site was dangerous and was planning to redesign it.
“The city’s documents said over and over again that the primary function of the redesign of the whole area was to promote pedestrian safety by providing a protected crosswalk,” said Dugan Barr of Redding, California, cocounsel for Liu. “All of the changes were out to bid when the accident happened. They could have closed the crosswalk, but they didn’t do anything.”
A study released in January by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that in the first six months of 2010—for the first time in four years—pedestrian fatalities nationwide went up from the previous year, despite a decline in overall traffic deaths. The association said distracted pedestrians might be partially to blame. Some states have pointed to anecdotal evidence to support that theory and are considering legislation that would make it illegal for pedestrians to use music devices or cell phones while crossing the street.
Traffic safety advocates argue, however, that there is no evidence to show a link between technological devices and pedestrian fatalities and that even when pedestrians play a part, cities are not absolved from blame.
“It’s true that people sometimes make unwise decisions, but wouldn’t you say [the road] conditions are at least as much to blame? Would they be in that position if the design didn’t force them there?” said David Goldberg, communications director for Transportation for America, a traffic safety organization in Washington, D.C. “If the design puts people in peril, then the transportation department and the people who design the roads are equally at fault.”
In a research priority plan released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last month, the agency said it will propose regulations this year aimed at redesigning vehicle hoods and bumpers to reduce injuries when pedestrians are struck.
Goldberg said the regulations are only a small step.
“It’s interesting how they are always ready to address the technical issues in vehicles before they are willing to look at the systemic mistakes we’ve made that need desperately to be fixed,” he said. “We have created a landscape that is hazardous to pedestrians.”
Barr agreed, noting that even vehicles moving slowly can be deadly for pedestrians, no matter how they are designed.
“In our case, [Liu] was thrown onto the hood and struck her head on the windshield,” he said. “If it had been a different kind of arrangement on the car, it would have knocked her down and run her over. Which is worse?”