by Eric Gershon
Saturday, December 2, 2000
Huge jury award sends clear message, safety advocates say
Next time you’re tempted to blow trough a red traffic light, consider this: A San Francisco jury last week told a red-light-runner to cough up $867,135.
On June 23, 1998 Valeria Kumin of 16th Avenue was headed north on South Van Ness Avenue when she ran through a red light and struck an automobile driven by Scott Street resident Marie France Cesar, which had entered the intersection through a green light from a full stop on 14th Street.
Cesar suffered permanent injury to her neck and shoulder and lost strength in her left arm. When Kumin’s insurance company declined to settle the case, Cesar filed a civil lawsuit against Kumin in San Francisco Superior Court.
The jury’s unanimous verdict was filed in the court on November 21.
Traffic safety has been a matter of grave concern in San Francisco this year, largely as a result of fatal collision between vehicles and pedestrian. Some traffic safety advocates say the jury’s unanimous decision to award a large sum of money to the victim of a nonfatal accident suggest that residents have lost patience for vehicle code offenders.
“This is a very tough judgment” said Supervisor Mabel Teng, who has been a vocal advocate of safer streets. “I think it sends a very strong message that the judicial system does not tolerate violations of the traffic law”
The San Francisco Police Department has issued 18,150 citations to motorists for running red light this year to date, an increase of about 8 percent over the 1999 total of 16,743.
According to Captain Michael Kemmitt of the SFPD’s traffic division, “Police are giving out more citations and there are more red-light cameras in place this year than last year.”
A ticket from the Police Department for running a red light cost $271.
Leah Shahum of the San Francisco Bicycle coalition however said bicyclists hit by cars don’t have much use for courts, judges or juries even sympathetic ones. As a bicyclist you have less protection,” she said. “[Drivers] are not slowing down to run red lights, they’re speeding up.”
A 30-year-old bicyclist was struck and killed by a truck at the intersection of Fourth and Channel street on November 17.
Successful lawsuits against transgressors of the motor vehicle code might make some drivers more caution, Shahum said, but a more effective deterrent would be stringent enforcement of red-light laws by the Police Department.
New Trial deemed unlikely
The court has not yet entered an official judgment in the Cesar Cumin Suit, which means that the jury’s verdict is not yet enforceable. In order for the verdict – the jury’s opinion – to carry the force of law, the judge must sign it.
Cesar’s attorney Christopher Dolan of the Dolan Law Firm said that while he was expecting the defendant to seek a new trial, such a retrial would be unlikely. The grounds for a new trial are juror misconduct, an error of law on the part of the judge, or insufficient evidence to justify the amount of the award.
Cesar’s award includes compensation for related medical expenses, massage therapy, lost future income, and “pain and suffering.”
Motorists have killed 28 pedestrians on San Francisco Streets this year.