Los Angeles: Metro Accident Lawsuit Illustrates Light Rail Danger

The Newspaper
by The Newspaper
los angeles metro accident lawsuit illustrates light rail danger

More and more cities are thinking about installing light rail on city streets as the federal government holds out the prospect of greater subsidies diverted from gasoline tax funds. The California Court of Appeal on August 30 ruled that a lower court erred in throwing out a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles for negligence in a fatal accident involving a metro Blue Line train. The incident reveals the significant threat high-speed rail can pose when run on streets designed for automobiles.

At 8am on March 1, 2004 Abraham Tovar had been driving with his wife Sara and son Steven when he made a left-hand turn at the intersection at Wilmington Avenue and Willowbrook Avenue East. The turn was illegal, but Abraham Tovar apparently did not see the flashing lights of the gate or hear the bells of the approaching train. Because of a curve in the road, the train operator did not see Tovars’ car until it crossed the track. The train hit the vehicle at 55 MPH, hurling it 300 feet while the train braked. Sara Tovar died of her injuries.

The surviving Tovars sued the county’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority for negligence, asserting that the Metro system creates a well-known and significant hazard for drivers who were, according to highway safety expert Robert Foster Douglas, frequently confused by inadequate signage warning of the left-turn prohibition. As a result, such turns into the train’s path are common. The lower court judge suppressed this evidence.

“Plaintiffs proffered videotaped evidence of motorists turning left at the Willowbrook-Wilmington intersection which showed that the condition of public property at that intersection increased the risk of such turns or permitted motorists to make such turns,” Court of Appeal Justice Patti S. Kitching wrote. “That the turns on the videotape did not result in accidents did not make the evidence of such turns irrelevant to the determination of whether the intersection was a dangerous condition of public property. That videotaped evidence should have been admitted.”

Accident reconstruction expert James Sobek testified that of 500 intersections he has examined, this is the second most dangerous of all with ten times the expected rate of collisions. The appeals court ruled that the trial court was wrong to suppress this evidence as well.

The Tovars, however, lost on other aspects of their suit. The city did make engineering changes to improve safety at the intersection, but state law specifically protects municipalities from allowing this fact to be admitted as evidence of prior negligence. The appellate court did not believe the Tovars met their burden of proof about the inherent danger of the intersection in question.

“The defects alleged by plaintiffs were poorly placed or missing signs, ambiguous or inconspicuous striping on street pavements, a center median that did not physically prevent a left-turning driver from crossing the tracks, and a failure to provide closing gates at the intersection of Wilmington and Willowbrook, all of which alleged defects were on property owned by the city, not by the MTA,” Kitching wrote. The order granting the MTA’s motion for nonsuit as to dangerous condition of public property is affirmed.”

Overall, however, the Tovars won a victory.

“We conclude that the evidentiary rulings prevented plaintiffs from presenting evidence important to their cause of action for dangerous condition of public property as to the city, and we reverse the judgment in favor of the city,” Kitching concluded.

A copy of the decision is available in a 200k PDF file at the source link below.

Tovar v. Los Angeles County MTA (Court of Appeal, State of California, 8/30/2010)

[Courtesy: Thenewspaper.com]

Join the conversation
2 of 14 comments
  • Fred Fred on Sep 09, 2010

    There have been several accidents in Houston with their light rail cars. Even one with a Metro bus. In all cases the driver was at fault for making illegal turns in front of the trains. Have not heard of anyone winning a case in court against Metro for an "unsafe condition" and we got some pretty high profile lawyers and ambulance chasers here.

  • DenverMike DenverMike on Sep 09, 2010

    Plaintiff made an illegal left but it's worth noting that the crossing gates are over 300ft apart due to the direction/angle that the tracks cross Wilmington Ave and then Willowbrook Ave joins Wilmington between the gates, off center, just North of the tracks. Drivers can only turn right in part due to Wilmington's center median posted with 'right turn only' and 'no left' signs. Crossing gates and lights are not necessary where Willowbrook meets Wilmington, in theory, as long as drivers turn right and thereby avoid the tracks altogether. It's a weird intersection, no doubt. Google Earthed it. An errant driver can physically and illegally turn left onto Wilmington and imediately cross paths with a commuter train without seeing red lights or hearing bells. When one ignores a 'no left' sign, usually they are in danger of a traffic ticket. In this case the sign should read "Turn Left and Die!"

  • SCE to AUX Faraday Future shouldn't even be here, and they won't make it. Other ultra-expensive EVs are fun projects for companies who can fund them from other revenue.The Lucid Air is a strange one because it starts at $87k but can run to over $250k. Most cars jump only around 50% for top trims, not 300%.As for EVs - don't give me more power (easy); give me more range (hard). And quicker filling time.
  • Dukeisduke It's funny how stuff like this crosses over between sites nowadays - there's an article about it today on MacRumors: Polestar 2 Software Update Brings Wave of New Apple CarPlay Features - MacRumors
  • Fahrvergnugen "If you’re itching for an ultra-exclusive EV – and who isn’t – "Me...
  • Dukeisduke Tim, once all this foam is everywhere, how do you get rid of it? Does it take a while to break down? I think of the scene in the 1963 James Garner / Doris Day film "The Thrill Of It All", where boxes of soap end up in the swimming pool, creating mountains of foam. The Thrill of It All (1963) - IMDb
  • MrIcky I have a foam cannon, it makes washing the car much faster which helps me do it more often. Foam cannon>pressure wash>suds bucket and mitt for tough spots but touch as little as possible>pressure wash those spots>spray on some detailer solution as I dry to keep the water beading up. 15 minutes-ish?