A jury has found that the city of San Juan Capistrano must pay $8.3 million in damages to Trenton Merrill and Scott Agostini. The two boys were seriously injured in a 2005 accident because of a dangerous condition at a city street intersection. The jury found that the dangerous condition at the intersection was a “substantial factor” in the injuries caused to the teenagers. Our source for this blog is this news report in The Orange County Register.
Merrill, who is now 18 years old, was a passenger on a dirt bike that belonged to Agostini. The boys were crossing San Juan Creek Road at Paseo Christina when they were struck by a BMW. Residents of that Hidden Valley neighborhood had complained to the city several times asking for a crosswalk or a stop sign at the intersection. City documents show that residents had been complaining for years about this dangerous Orange County intersection. But city officials decided that the intersection did not warrant a crosswalk or a stop sign.
Merrill, who was 14 at the time of the March 30, 2005 accident, had to have his right leg amputated below the knee. Agostini was released after spending a week at the hospital. Attorneys for the plaintiffs argued that the driver of the BMW could not stop in time because overgrown vegetation in the median created an “absolute blind intersection.” The case went before a jury after several attempts to settle with the city apparently failed. Merrill’s attorney said he wanted to go through with the lawsuit because he was concerned about the safety of other residents in the neighborhood who had pleaded with the city for more than 10 years to make that intersection safe.
The city’s attorney tried to portray the boys as “reckless, semi-pro motorcycle riders” who used the public street as their playground. But members of the jury, while finding the boys negligent, found that the city’s responsibility to make that intersection safe overrode the boys’ reckless behavior. The city now owes $7.2 million to Merrill and $1.1 million to Agostini.
I think the jurors in this case made the right decision by holding the city of San Juan Capistrano responsible for not fixing this dangerous road condition. It is very clear that this was an existing problem at that intersection – one that was known for more than a decade. It is clear that residents were vocal about it. The city had knowledge of it and chose to do nothing about it.
The city could have saved millions of dollars had they taken the time and spent the few thousand dollars it would have cost them to put in a crosswalk or stop signs at that dangerous San Juan Capistrano intersection.