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Our Client v. State of California

On May 20, 2000, our 23-year-old client was a passenger in a new 1999 Mazda Miata driven by his girlfriend, headed to Stinson Beach from San Francisco on a clear and sunny day. From Stinson Beach, they drove further north on State Route 1 toward the Point Reyes Lighthouse. The driver saw that the speed limit increased from 35 mph to 55 mph just north of the Town of Olema. The driver increased the speed of the Miata to approximately 60-65 mph in the straightaway following the 55 mph speed limit sign. Then, within 1200 feet of the 55 mph speed limit sign, the driver came upon a curve in the road.

The State of California owns State Route 1. Although it is unknown when this portion of State Route 1 was originally designed or constructed, Caltrans widened the original 18-foot, two-lane road to a 32-foot wide roadway in the early 1980’s.

The curve in issue, one mile north of the Town of Olema and one mile south of Point Reyes Station, has an undisputed design speed of 35 mph based on its radius of curvature. All other geometric measurements of the curve indicated that it was a 35 mph curve. However, there was no sign in advance of the curve warning that it was only a 35 mph curve on a road with a 55 mph speed limit.

The driver lost control of the Miata while attempting to negotiate the curve. The Miata left the roadway, went up an adjacent embankment, and rolled one and a half times. It landed upside down back on the roadway. The driver subsequently admitted to the CHP that she was going “too fast” for the curve at 60-65 mph.

The airbags deployed in the incident and the seat belts remained fastened on both the driver and the passenger, our client, as they came to rest upside down in the vehicle. The driver was able to unfasten her seat belt and remove herself from under the car. She sustained a laceration on her head when it scraped against the pavement during the incident, causing her to lose some hair and requiring seven stitches to close the wound. Our client suffered fractures to his C4-6 vertebrae, rendering him an immediate C4-5 quadriplegic. He is permanently confined to a wheelchair and has virtually no use of his arms and legs.

Plaintiff brought a case against the State of California for a dangerous condition of public property (Government Code §835). The case went to trial before The Honorable Lynn O’Malley Taylor in Marin County. Plaintiff’s experts in traffic engineering testified that the curve in issue was a dangerous condition because Caltrans posted a 55 mph speed limit sign 1200 feet before a 35 mph curve without providing any warning to motorists of the curve’s limitations. Plaintiff claimed that the curve created a trap for the unwary. Plaintiff’s experts further opined that the curve’s radius, length, and super elevation violated Caltrans’ standards, and that it was compound in nature (it had a diminishing radius).

The State claimed that the only similar incident, which involved a motorcycle in 1993, occurred seven years before this incident and more than 3 million vehicles safely negotiated the curve without incident between that prior incident and the subject incident. Thus, the curve could not be dangerous to those using due care and the State had no notice of any condition that was dangerous. It also claimed that the curve was readily apparent and clearly visible to approaching motorists, so no warning sign was necessary. It further claimed that the single vehicle rollover was solely caused by the negligence of the driver.

After the jury deliberated for a week, our client reached a settlement with the State of California for $5.5 million