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Byline: Patrick McGreevy Daily News Staff Writer

A disputed yellow center line cost the city of Los Angeles a record-tying $9 million Wednesday - the settlement in a lawsuit by five people injured when a drunk driver crossed over the line and crashed into the van they were riding in.

A jury found the city partly liable in the 1991 crash in San Pedro and awarded the victims $28.9 million last year - $16.5 million from the city.

In a 9-to-1 vote Wednesday, the City Council agreed to drop its appeal in exchange for the smaller payoff.

The settlement sparked outrage in and out of City Hall and finger-pointing between city officials about who is to blame for such a staggering bill.

``I couldn't vote for this. It's completely unfair that the city is being held liable,'' said City Councilwoman Laura Chick, who cast the lone vote against settling the case.

City Attorney James Hahn, in his proposal to settle, said the city had no record of recent maintenance of the double yellow line on Alameda Street, which had not been painted for five years.

Since the crash, the city has inspected its center street stripes every two years. Before, the city had no regular inspection program.

Two of the five victims of the Jan. 21, 1991 crash on Alameda just north of Pacific Coast Highway were left quadriplegics.

The victims - Elsa Mota, Christine Mota, Isabel Alvarez, Michelle Birbragher and Salvador Elizarraraz - all were in their early 20s at the time.

One passenger in the van was killed, but that death has not resulted in a lawsuit.

Seven without seat belts

The van carrying nine people, only two wearing seat belts, was struck by a car driven by Raymond Basped, who later tested as having a blood alcohol level of .13 - one and a half times more than the legal limit.

Basped told investigators he looked down at his radio for a few seconds and when he looked up he saw he was going to collide with the van, but he said he could not tell where the center lines were when he tried unsuccessfully to swerve to safety.

Basped was convicted of felony drunk driving.

The victims sued both Basped and the city, claiming the double yellow lines painted down the middle of Alameda were worn ``to the point that they were not adequately reflective at night,'' according to a report by the City Attorney's Office.

The only city records found showed the lines had been repainted five years earlier. A more durable striping was believed installed after 1986 but ``unfortunately, there were no records to show exactly when (it) was done,'' the city attorney's report said.

Experts differed on the life span of the thermoplastic striping, some saying it lasts up to three years while others testifying it could last five to 12 years. City experts said the line were ``fully visible'' at the time of the crash, but plaintiffs' experts said there was a ``severe lack of guidance by which drivers could position themselves.''

The city argued that 15 million cars had used that section of Alameda without getting involved in a head-on collision in the eight years before the accident. There were no complaints or claims filed in the previous 10 years.

Officer testifies street unsafe

But LAPD Officer Michael Tolliver testified that the lines were not visible at night and he had nearly been in a crash three weeks before the incident because he ``lost his scope on the roadway,'' the city attorney's report said.

The city tried to discredit Tolliver by alleging he had been in contact with the plaintiffs' attorneys, who had given money to his children.

On a 9-to-3 vote, a jury found the city liable for dangerous conditions, assessing the city 35 percent of the liability, leaving Basped with the remainder, of a $28.9 million verdict.

Just days after the ruling on liability, but before actual dollar damages were awarded, the City Council rejected a proposal to settle the case for $7 million, according to the city attorney's report.

The jury awarded the plaintiffs $28.9 million, of which $16.5 was levied against the city. That has grown to $17.7 million as interest has accrued while the city pursued an appeal.

A retired state appeals court judge who served as a post-trial mediator said the city had a 20 percent to 50 percent change of winning on appeal.

Chick argued that the jury award was unjust and the city should have appealed the case based on evidence that the striping was adequate.

She said it is unfair to have city taxpayers pay $9 million when a drunk driver was involved and when victims were not wearing seat belts.

``I felt we should have gone ahead and argued that the street striping was appropriate,'' Chick said.

Although the street in question was renovated and restriped after the incident, Chick noted that the financially strapped city is liable for similar lawsuits in the future based on equally meritless claims.

``To me, it (settlement) is sending out a message of, Come and sue us.''

The City Attorney's Office recommended the settlement, warning that an appeal could result in the city paying $18 million, which would all but deplete the city's meager $20 million reserve fund.

``That (appeal) is a big risk to take when we only have $20 million left in reserve,'' Chick acknowledged.

Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg said she felt she had little choice but to settle the lawsuit for $9 million.

``I hated to vote for it, but I have a fiscal responsibility,'' Goldberg said. ``Even if we had appealed and won, it might have reduced the $18 million to $16 million. If we had lost, it could have been $18 million.''

With that kind of judgment hitting the city's reserve fund, ``The party's over,'' she said.

One council member, speaking on condition of anonymity, accused the City Attorney's Office of dropping the ball in a case that the city should have won.

City attorney mum on deal

Hahn and the attorney handling the case did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

However, a source in the City Attorney's Office noted that the council could have settled for $2 million less last year and rejected that recommendation by the city's attorneys.

Richard B. Koskoff, an attorney representing the five plaintiffs, said the settlement was just.

``I'm very pleased we could get our severely injured clients some money,'' he said. ``Two of the women are in chairs for life.''

Koskoff said he has not yet settled with Basped, but believes the city did share in the blame for what happened.

Although drunk, Basped was driving in a straight line before the collision, the attorney said.

``He was not weaving or straddling the lanes,'' Koskoff said. ``Had there been proper guidance, he could have stayed in his lane. The city was not fault-free.''

Tom Conner, general manager of the city Transportation Department, asserted Wednesday that the roadway striping was adequate.

Striping improvements

Since the crash, all painted roadway striping has been replaced by thermoplastic striping similar to that which existed on Alameda at the time of the accident, Conner said.

The plastic striping lasts 10 times as long as paint and is now inspected every two years, Conner said.

``There was not an inspection program at the time of the accident,'' Conner said.

In addition, the city is in the process of computerizing the inspection and maintenance records so that it is not left without a defense again.

The settlement approved Wednesday ties a record for a city settlement, matching the $9 million the council approved in 1993 with Benny Powell and Clarence Chance, who were imprisoned wrongly for murder charges for 18 years before prosecutors admitted that the LAPD had withheld crucial evidence and used testimony from a discredited jailhouse informant.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 9, 1998

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