In brief: Teenage cyclist killed in collision with oncoming bus
In the early evening of May 5th, 2017, thirteen-year-old Ciara Smith was riding bikes with a friend on their way home from a ride down to the beach. They reached the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Knob Hill Avenue in Redondo Beach, California at approximately the same time as a Metro bus driven by an employee of the subcontractor MV Transportation.
Both girls rode off the curb and entered the intersection just as the bus passed them on their left side. Ciara collided with the side of the oncoming bus, and was later pronounced dead at the scene. It was the tenth bicycling fatality in Los Angeles county that year.
As more details came to light, it became clear that the dangerous design of the intersection and the inadequate training of the bus driver rendered this not just a tragic accident, but a wrongful death.
It was then that our firm stepped in, securing a multiple eight-figure result for Ciara’s family.
The Pineapple Princess
Ciara was an honor-roll student at Parras Middle School in Redondo Beach. The fondness with which she is remembered by her fellow students cannot be overstated.
Her friend Tara recalled that, “She would always be happy and cheerful and would make you laugh if you were down. She would always have your back and be your go-to person.” Her friend Kylie remembered that, “She always lit up a room whenever she walked into it, she was never not happy.” Indeed, Ciara’s kind-hearted optimism was so great that it earned her the nickname “Pineapple Princess” after a wise saying of hers: “Be a pineapple: stand tall, wear a crown, and be sweet on the inside.”
Tragically, the last time that most of Ciara’s friends saw her was a Snapchat video of her biking home from the beach. The last time anyone saw her was when a local business-owner witnessed the two girls “coasting their bicycles along the sidewalk” just before the collision.
When Ciara reached the curb ramp that transitions from the sidewalk to the crosswalk of the intersection, she paused to check on her friend and let her go first. After her friend peddled into the crosswalk, Ciara followed her. At the moment that the girls entered the crosswalk, the MV Transport bus was approximately 300 feet or 10 seconds of travel time away from them.
The bus, which was traveling south in the right-hand lane, was going below the speed limit and had a green light. At some point there were vehicles occupying the other lane to the bus’s left, but video evidence shows at least one of those vehicles passing by the bus just before the accident.
The lane the bus occupied tapers down from 14 feet to only 10 and a half feet alongside the crosswalk. This meant that the bus, which was 10 feet wide when including its mirrors, had at most six inches of clearance between itself and the crosswalk.
In fact, it is likely that this clearance was less than six inches at times due to two factors: the passenger-side doors of the bus which jut outwards even when closed, and the possibility that one of the witnesses testified that the bus was beginning to veer towards an anticipated bus stop just up the road. Garo would later describe to the jury that the driver “hugged the curb” and “got closer and closer” to the crosswalk leading up to the accident.
As the bus overtook and passed the girls, the left-hand handlebar of Ciara’s bike was struck by it. The force of this impact spun the bike clockwise and brought Ciara under the 30,000 pound bus’s rear wheels. Ciara’s friend was unharmed.
Ciara tragically died on site.
Dangerous by Design
Five months after the accident, Ciara’s parents Barry and Rose Smith filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court, “alleging the intersection was dangerous and poorly designed and that the bus driver should have avoided hitting their daughter.”
Utilizing a large scale model of the intersection that nearly spanned the entirety of the courtroom’s well, Garo and Larry went on to demonstrate that the crosswalk was faded, improperly marked, and did not line up with the sidewalk of the intersection. Instead, the closest curb passed into the northwest corner and went out into the street, rather than the intended crosswalk. This effectively forced the bicyclists to stray too far into the oncoming path” of southbound vehicles due to the lack of bicycle-only lanes.
The unsafe state of this infrastructure had existed for long enough that Caltrans and the City of Redondo Beach “knew or should have known” about it. Both of these parties settled with the Smiths for $4.9 million each, leaving MV Transportation Inc, the employer of the bus driver, as the sole remaining defendant for jury deliberation during the ensuing trial.
On the behalf of the Smiths, we demonstrated that MV Transportation failed to adequately train their bus driver for a crucial situation as the one that tragically ended Ciara’s life – whether she saw the girls or not. During the trial, expert testimony on both sides concurred that the girls ought to have been visible to the bus driver some 300 feet away, or approximately 10 seconds before she passed by them. Security camera footage from inside the bus also confirmed that at 43 feet away both girls were completely visible.
Kailah Morrow, one of the only eyewitnesses of the accident, testified as to what happened. Kailah was sitting at a bus stop just up the road from the site of the accident. She testified that she leaned forward to make eye contact with the bus driver, who then began to move to the right towards the bus stop. It is possible that this movement towards the bus stop is what brought the bus into contact with Ciara’s handlebar. Garo argued to the jury that, “[The bus driver] didn’t see [the girls] because she wasn’t being attentive,” and that such a lack of attentiveness by a professional driver is “unforgivable” and “exactly the definition of negligence.”
The defense countered that even if the driver had seen the girls, the driver could not have safely made an evasive move to avoid striking Ciara due to there being vehicles in the only other lane, but this sort of maneuver is not what California law demands. Rather, California Vehicle Code § 21760, referred to as the “Three Feet of Safety Act,” states that a motor vehicle driver “shall not overtake or pass a bicycle proceeding in the same direction on a highway at a distance of less than three feet…”
In other words, if the bus driver could not have given Ciara and her friend the three feet worth of clearance space, then the bus driver should have refrained from attempting to pass by them at all.
The failure of MV Transportation to train the bus driver in this essential detail became clear during a deposition of the driver conducted on September 17,, 2018. The exchange was as follows, with the bus driver answering:
Q: “Were you taught any rules about overtaking a bicyclist, in other words going past a bicyclist that’s in front of you?”
Q: “Do you know what the Three Feet for Safety Act is?”
A: “No, I don’t remember.”
Q: “My question is just whether MV Transportation told you at any point to provide bicyclists with three feet of space when passing them?”
A: “No, they didn’t tell me anything like that.”
Garo then reminded the jury that “employers are responsible under the law” for the negligence of their employees in such instances, and asked them to award “noneconomic” damages to the Smiths for “the loss of Ciara Smith’s love, companionship, comfort, care, assistance, protection, affection, society, and moral support” for the rest of their lives, including when they would have required her help in their old age.
Over a nine-day trial at the Spring Street Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, the jurors ultimately found MV Transportation to be 75% responsible for Ciara’s death, with the other percentages falling to the City of Redondo Beach and the State of California. The jury deliberated for roughly a day “before finding in favor…of Barry and Rose Smith in November of 2021.
While nothing can ever restore Ciara to her family and friends, we sincerely hope that the severity of this ruling encourages driving companies to better train their employees in the future.
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Admitted to practice in 2006, Armen has arbitrated, tried, and settled several cases which have resulted in multi-million dollar verdicts and settlements.
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