What caused the accident? Marijuana-impaired driver or the median?
  • What caused the accident? Marijuana-impaired driver or the median?
  • Image by Chris Woo
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Hyun Jeong Choi’s glass marijuana pipe rested inside the center console of her 2015 gray Toyota Corolla. The pipe was still hot to the touch on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016, when traffic accident investigator Christine Garcia touched it nearly 30 minutes after Choi’s left front tire struck a portion of raised median on Pomerado Road at Caminito Alto in Scripps Ranch. The collision with the median blew Choi’s left front tire, twisting her car counter-clockwise into oncoming traffic and directly into Jon Warshawsky’s 1956 Porsche Speedster. The impact eventually killed Warshawsky’s life partner, 48-year-old Amanda Walzer, and left Warshawsky, a former author and publisher for Deloitte University Press in San Diego, clinging to life after a severe brain injury and paralysis caused by fractures to the occipital bones located at the base of his skull.

The median has been the subject of numerous complaints

The median has been the subject of numerous complaints

In March of 2017, Warshawsky sued the City of San Diego for improper design of the center median and failure to maintain it.

White plastic bollards (left) at Pomerado Road and Caminito Alto

White plastic bollards (left) at Pomerado Road and Caminito Alto

According to public documents obtained by the Reader, the median was the cause of at least one other accident prior to the collision and the subject of numerous complaints — one of which came from the San Diego Police Department — for poor visibility in months preceding the death of Walzer.

Warshawsky’s lawsuit raises the question of whether a marijuana-impaired driver or the median was the cause of Walzer’s death and Warshawsky’s injuries. It’s a legal question that has been asked before.

Brain dead

Warshawsky and Walzer were driving west on Pomerado Road at 5:30 p.m. in Warshawsky’s restored Porsche. Meanwhile, Choi traveled east. Choi’s car drifted from the eastbound lane into a left-turn lane at Pomerado Road’s intersection with Caminito Alto. Choi struck two of the white bollards separating the turn lane from the eastbound lane. Her front left tire slammed into a portion of raised median just north of the turn lane. The tire blew out. The median, according to a traffic collision report, created drag on Choi’s damaged wheel, sending her car into oncoming traffic. Her Toyota slammed into the driver’s side door of Warshawsky’s Porsche, buckling the dashboard and dislodging the front windshield.

When witnesses arrived, Walzer was draped over the passenger-side door unconscious and bleeding. Warshawsky slumped toward Walzer, also unconscious. Choi, according to witness testimony, sat motionless in the front seat. She was unresponsive and had a glazed look on her face. The witness noticed the marijuana pipe. Warshawsky, Walzer, and Choi were transported to nearby hospitals. Two days later doctors declared Walzer brain-dead. She died the following day. Warshawsky remained in critical condition and is now unable to care for himself. Choi’s injuries were minor. She now awaits a criminal felony jury trial scheduled for September 22, 2017. Choi was on probation at the time of the accident for driving while under the influence in 2012.

Poor visibility

Public documents obtained by the Reader through a public records request show the median on Pomerado Road at Caminito Alto as well as nearby intersections have caused other accidents and prompted citizens and the police department to request additional signage be placed to improve visibility.

In June 2011, a resident requested that the city “evaluate median end treatment” just northeast of Caminito Alto at Spring Canyon Road.

In February 2012, a man struck the center median at Caminito Alto. He was later cited for driving under the influence.

Then, in April 2014, city staff oversaw an asphalt-overlay project on Pomerado Road, from Avenida Magnifica northeast to Spring Canyon Road, including the intersection of Caminito Alto and Pomerado Road, the location of the accident. City emails show there were several errors in the restriping of yellow hatching marks along Pomerado Road. In addition, crews failed to repaint the median nose yellow, to indicate the end of yellow lines and beginning of the raised median.

In May 2014, the San Diego Police Department’s dispatch center requested the city’s transportation department place object markers near the median at Caminito Alito due to poor visibility and “insufficient illumination” resulting in complaints that drivers were “running into it.”

A follow-up email from officer Patricia Krall to a junior engineer for the city’s Transportation and Storm Water Department, Shagor Hossain, explained the issue. “The raised thin median peninsula is for turning traffic into Caminito Alto. The median is in a dark part of a turn in the road and difficult to see at night.”

Hossain submitted a work order to place two object markers at the center median. It is unclear if that ever occurred, as no signage is currently in place. A city spokesperson did not respond to questions in time for publication.

When is a city liable?

In 2015, during a review of the court case Cordova vs. City of Los Angeles, California’s supreme court judges expanded liability for municipalities in cases involving alleged dangerous conditions of public property. San Diego appellate attorney Martin Buchanan represented the Cordova family in the lawsuit. In that case Cristyn Cordova was driving her sister and brother and two other passengers on Colorado Boulevard in Los Angeles’s Eagle Rock community. Another driver veered into Cordova’s lane, sending the car into the median, head-on into a tree. All but one of the five people in the car died as a result of the collision. The Cordova family sued the city. The trial court and an appellate court dismissed the claim, ruling as other courts have that municipalities should be liable only if public property (the tree, in the Cordova case; in the Warshawsky case, the median) caused the accident. The state supreme court, however, rejected that logic, stating that the tree was the cause of the injury, thus the city was liable.

The decision opened the floodgates for plaintiffs looking to blame municipalities for failing to correct dangerous conditions of public property, regardless of whether the dangerous conditions caused accidents or not. The judges stated that in order to show liability, plaintiffs must be able to show one of two things: that a “negligent or wrongful act or omission of an employee of the public entity within the scope of his employment created the dangerous condition,” or “[t]he public entity had notice of the dangerous condition a sufficient time prior to the injury to have taken measures to protect against the dangerous condition.”

Says Buchanan, “The state supreme court’s ruling in Cordova reaffirmed a longstanding California rule that a public entity may be held liable for a dangerous condition of public property even if the negligent or even criminal conduct of a third party also contributed to the injury or caused the underlying accident.”

And while the decision in Cordova opened the city to new lawsuits, Buchanan says Warshawsky’s attorneys have a long, hard fight ahead of them. “Regardless of the law, jurors may believe that a public entity should not be responsible for an accident caused by an impaired driver. In this case, the jurors may believe the marijuana pipe is smoking-gun evidence of the driver’s responsibility for the accident. Even if the condition of the median also contributed to the victims’ harm, a jury may be reluctant to impose liability on the City, no matter what the law says.”

  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Comments

shamus June 8, 2017 @ 9:15 a.m.

Blaming it on cannabis might save the state, county or city some money, but it probably won't prevent another accident happening at this poorly designed intersection. If SDPD took note of it, and their Traffic Division used to be tops, don't know about now, then there would appear to be proximate cause or whatever lawyers like to call it. Sorry about the injured, didn't hear if they were wearing seat belts or not, this thing had been restored. Of course, we've been ignoring infrastructure for decades now and perhaps the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. Now all you have to calculate is whether it was cheaper for the authority to let people die or fix the problem. We'll have those numbers soon, get out your calculators people, this could be expensive.

0

JustWondering June 8, 2017 @ 11:43 a.m.

Sadly, the city has a Risk Management department that makes those kind of analysis. But then so do most major corporations, who produce products where lives can be lost, have those same analysts.

I agree, SDPD's Traffic Division, especially those who investigate serious injury and fatal collisions are top notch people.

I disagree with Jacob's argument above; to paraphrase it, those who smoke pot a lot, or often, are not affected or affected less. You haven't got a clue about how you're really affected.

Your central nervous system is impaired dramatically by the consumption of alcohol, the inspiration of marijuana, or the consumption of prescribed medications. The impairment, however slight, affects your ability to effectively control at ton or more of steel and traveling down the roadway. It also alters the perception of light, slows reaction times and reduces rational thought. Judgement is impaired.

Jacob also suggest distraction. We have no evidence whatsoever of distraction. However, there is a prior history of impairment and driving under the influence.

Three lives, two being innocent ones, destroyed by the selfish act, by a person with a history of driving under the influence. To keep us safe, she needs to go to prison for a VERY long time AND never be allowed to operate a motor vehicle again.

Sadly, people like this typically carry minimum liability policies because the cost of insurance skyrockets for those who have convictions for DUI. That leaves plaintiff's attorneys looking for a deep pocket. They zero in on the city, and taxpayers. They are easy targets. But the most interesting fact unreported in this story; there are the hundreds of thousands of daily trips over the years, through this same intersection, where every motorist safely traversed it without incident, day or night.

0

elizbaci June 13, 2017 @ 6:16 a.m.

Sadly there were lives lost in these cases and there is nothing more tragic. While I remain sensitive to that I wonder just how many cases of the less severe in injury to the body but critically serious to the wallet go unreported? They may even occur at many other places in the city and county where the charming medians exist. As long as there is no significant financial impact effecting say the retirement plans of our public officials we will not see anything change. I too hit one of these medians on Qualcomin Wy in the dark, pooring rain, last Jan. the night the San Diego river rose to 11 feet and everyone decided to turn around at the same time. My vision is 20/30 each eye and I get a good drivers discount every year.

Well,lets just say no matter who you swerve away from to avoid getting hit, after 6 weeks in the shop and a $16,000 dollar hit on my insurance for undercarriage and wheel damage,a good driving record discount is history and I can count on zero discount not to mention sky high premiums next year! The insurance adjuster on my case indicated he had never seen a wheel so badly mangled.

0

Sign in to comment