The next court hearing for George Russell Weller — the driver accused of killing ten and injuring 63 people in a July 2003 Santa Monica Farmers Market crash — is Wednesday, January 26th.
“Now, it is up to a jury to determine Mr. Weller’s fate,” said Geoffrey Wells of Santa Monica, an attorney representing plaintiffs.
Wells, Brian Panish and Timothy Wheeler of the law firm Greene, Broillet, Panish & Wheeler represent more than 11 plaintiffs in wrongful death or personal injury civil suits against Weller and the City of Santa Monica.
“We just hope that after more than a year and a half of waiting, this case will go to trial without any further delays,” Wells said.
Weller pled not guilty to ten counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence at his arraignment Wednesday, December 8th, in Los Angeles County Superior Court’s airport courthouse.
County prosecutors filed criminal charges against Weller in January. Weller has been free on bail on the condition that he not drive.
He previously stated through spokespeople that he accidentally stepped on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal during the July 16th, 2003, crash.
According to the California Highway Patrol, Weller’s vehicle allegedly plowed 995 feet through the crowded outdoor market on Arizona Avenue at 60 miles per hour, missing parked cars but striking pedestrians.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) ruled out causes such as mechanical failure, weather, alcohol, drugs and fatigue in its official report, released in August.
Los Angeles County district attorney Steve Cooley said the NTSB report has no effect on his case against Weller.
“While I recognize that the focus of the NTSB is not an analysis of criminal liability, I do note that the report is incomplete in that it omits material witness statements which conflict with the report’s conclusion,” Cooley said.
The NTSB acknowledged the fact that Weller is a “long-term resident of the area, familiar with the farmers market and owned the vehicle for over ten years.”
NTSB investigators said they could not conclusively find that Weller’s age was a factor in the crash, but they referred to his age and health in the report.
Weller is currently 88 years old and was 87 at the time of the crash.
If convicted on all vehicular manslaughter counts, he faces either probation or up to 18 years in prison.
CIVIL LAWSUITS — Other lawyers have filed civil lawsuits against the Bayside District Corporation — the nonprofit city agency that oversees the farmers market — the State of California, the Los Angeles County agriculture commission and an association representing farmers market farmers.
The NTSB partially blamed the City of Santa Monica for the crash, determining that the city used traffic control barricades that did not adequately prevent Weller’s vehicle from entering the pedestrian zone.
Santa Monica city attorney Marsha Moutrie disagreed with the NTSB and said the report cited traffic control procedures that “apply at the moment only to roadwork, not to community events [such as a farmers market].”
Moutrie, who is defending Santa Monica in civil lawsuits against the city, said the barricades have been used for 22 years without any problems.
“Rigid barriers suggested by the NTSB for the future cannot be readily removed for emergency access, nor have they been tested to prove that they work to stop moving vehicles,” Moutrie said.
Wells said that he, the other attorneys he is working with and the plaintiffs they represent support the NTSB report.
“Our clients know that Mr. Weller played a role that has forever changed their lives,” Wells said. But they strongly believe that the City of Santa Monica played an even greater, more critical role.”
“We will not allow the City of Santa Monica to avoid its responsibility to them by foisting all of the blame on Mr. Weller,” he said.