Monday, December 8, 2014
Court of Appeal Revives Suit Against County Over Auto Rollover
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Court of Appeal for this district Friday reinstated a lawsuit by a woman who claims the poor maintenance of a stretch of Palmdale Blvd. in an unincorporated part of the county caused an automobile rollover resulting in major injuries.
Justice Richard Aldrich, writing for Div. Three, said there were triable issues as to whether the county properly maintained the road and whether any failure to do so caused Veronica Barragan’s car to leave the road and roll up, and then down, a hill. The opinion was not certified for publication.
Barragan has disclaimed any memory of the accident, which occurred as she was driving westbound but alleged on the basis of physical evidence and expert opinion that she failed to see the curve around the hill due to poor visibility. When she realized that her right wheels were off the paved road and on the soft shoulder, she pulled strongly to the left, crossed the center line, then overcorrected to the right, causing her to crash into the hill, she alleges.
Drinking, Inattention Claimed
The county maintains that Barragan’s alcohol use, although its own expert agreed that she did not drink close to the legal limit, and inattention to the road caused the rollover, since there were clearly readable signs announcing the curve and the 45 mph speed limit.
Barragan did not present the county with a tort claim within the statutory six-month period. In a prior appeal, the court ruled that she was entitled to relief from the presentation requirement based on evidence that her injuries were so serious she did not think to consult a lawyer until she saw an attorney’s television commercial after the time period had run.
After that ruling, the county moved to dismiss the action as a sanction for fraud. It cited newly discovered evidence that Barragan’s fiancé had been taking photographs and otherwise investigating the accident, and that her mother had consulted an attorney, who had declined to take the case, during the six-month period.
A Los Angeles Superior Court judge granted the motion to dismiss. A separate motion for summary judgment, based on the merits of the negligence claim, was granted as well.
Aldrich, however, said the judge erred in imposing a terminating sanction based on fraud committed by persons other than the plaintiff.
The justice emphasized that the trial judge did not find any express misstatements on the part of the plaintiff, instead finding that the omission of an explanation of the efforts of her mother and fiancé on her behalf constituted an implied misrepresentation on her part.
While there was evidence supporting the trial judge’s view of the facts, Aldrich said, he was “troubled by the conclusion that this constitutes deliberate and egregious misconduct.”
Given that there were no false responses to discovery, no assertions that Barragan’s fiancé did not investigate or Barragan’s mother did not contact counsel, and no claim that Barragan’s declaration was a complete statement of “every fact conceivably relevant to the determination of excusable neglect, rather than the facts Barragan believed best supported her case,” the dismissal was an abuse of discretion, the jurist concluded.
Turning to the summary judgment ruling, Aldrich said the trial judge erred in ruling that the signage made the curve not dangerous as a matter of law.
The justice explained that while it was undisputed that a driver using high beam headlights would have seen the signs in time to handle the curve safely, it was disputed whether a reasonable driver would necessarily be using high beams. And the county’s expert, Aldrich noted, conceded that a reasonably cautious driver using low beams would not have seen the signage in time to navigate the curve.
The jurist also cited the testimony of plaintiff’s experts that a driver proceeding at the 45 mile per hour speed recommended by the sign would not have sufficient time to see the curve and safely navigate it.
The plaintiff was represented on appeal by Donald G. Liddy and Barry M. Wolf; the county by John M. Coleman of Coleman & Associates and Timothy Coates and Carolyn Oill of Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland.
The case is Barragan v. County of Los Angeles, B245832.
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