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CalTrans Had Head in Sand, Says Attorney

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San Francisco, CAThere are none so blind as those that will not see, as the saying goes. That's the back story on the $12.2 million verdict Doug Saeltzer recently obtained on behalf a woman injured for life in a pedestrian crosswalk in San Mateo, California in 2006.

Saeltzer recalls the four and half years he worked diligently on behalf of Emily Liou and her family. Everyone agreed on the facts of the case: It was dark, the crosswalk was difficult to see, the driver was proceeding slowly in an area she knew well, and 17-year-old Emily was listening to her iPod as she attempted cross the street.

Yes, Emily might have paid more attention as she entered the crosswalk. But at the heart of the matter was CalTrans (the California Department of Transportation), which manages the state's 50,000 miles of roads and highways. Saeltzer and his colleague, Richard Schoenberg from the firm of Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger, argued that CalTrans "knew or ought to have known" that particular crosswalk was a death trap.

"Three pedestrians have been killed in the intersection over 15 years," says Saeltzer. "We put up evidence to show this was unacceptable and studies existed to that show that this type of crosswalk should not be placed at this type of intersection. Experts at the trial testified that that accident rate is too high."

During the 18-day trial, CalTrans countered with a "not true" defense.

"CalTrans said the studies are inconclusive, and the accident rate is actually really low here," says Saeltzer.

Saeltzer argued that CalTrans has been repeatedly told it puts too much emphasis on vehicle safety at the expense of pedestrian safety.

"Frankly, we conceded Emily had some fault. She was wearing an iPod and it was night and perhaps she could have done better. But you need to compare her conduct in that split second with CalTrans' behavior over the last 10 or 15 years.

"I think the evidence won the case and we were able to give that some framework to show that CalTrans had stuck its head in the sand in terms of safety."

During the trial, an expert witness testified that given the location of the intersection, even though the driver was going less than speed limit, she had only three seconds to react.

The jury split the liability: 20 percent to Emily Liou, 30 percent to the driver and 50 percent to CalTrans.

Doug Saeltzer is an attorney with Walkup, Melodia, Kelly & Schoenberger. His practice is focused on personal injury, dangerous conditions, vehicle accidents and product liability work.

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