Santa Monica Farmers Market crash
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On the afternoon of July 16, 2003, George Weller, then age 86, drove his 1992 Buick LeSabre westbound down Arizona Avenue in Santa Monica, California toward the city's popular Third Street Promenade. The last few blocks of the street, before it ends at the ocean, had been closed to vehicle traffic for the biweekly farmers' market.
Weller's car struck a 2003 Mercedes-Benz S430 sedan that had stopped to allow pedestrians through a crosswalk, then accelerated around a road closure sign, crashed through wooden sawhorses, and plowed through the busy marketplace crowd, traveling nearly 1,000 feet (300 m) at speeds between 40 and 60 mph (60 and 100 km/h). The entire sequence of collisions took at least 10 seconds.
By the time the car came to a halt, ten people had been killed and 63 were injured. Weller told investigators he had accidentally placed his foot on the accelerator pedal instead of the brake, then tried to brake but could not stop. Days after the crash, Weller issued a statement saying he was distraught and heartbroken, and his attorney called it an accident.
The accident fueled a national debate in the United States on safety risks posed by elderly drivers.
Some observers questioned Weller's account; numerous witnesses and victims reported:
- Seeing no brake lights on Weller's car, which would indicate that he was not attempting to stop;
- Weller stared straight ahead as he drove through the crowd, with victims flying over his windshield;
- Weller angrily yelled from his car "Get out of the way!" as he hit pedestrians;
- That Weller avoided parked cars and produce tables on both sides of the road, steering instead directly down the middle of the crowded street;
- Weller did strike one vegetable stand, "sandwiching" victims with shelves and structural components from the stand;
- Weller's car came to a stop after hitting two parked cars;
Weller's supporters argue that:
- Weller suffered from arthritis, nausea as a side-effect of medication, and reduced mobility from a hip replacement.
- Weller had a relatively clean driving record at the DMV, with one minor accident and no violations. Weller had passed a vision test and written test on renewing his driver's license in November 2000.
- Since the tragedy resulted from a "misapplication" of the pedal, Weller had committed an accident, not a crime. "Pedal error cannot constitute negligence," stated Mark Overland, an attorney for Weller.
After he was found guilty of ten counts of vehicular manslaughter, the sentencing judge noted that Weller "showed enormous indifference" and "unbelievable callousness."
The day of the tragedy in Santa Monica, footage of a previous accident Weller had been in ten years earlier surfaced. While that accident was not fatal, he had driven his car off the road in much the same fashion as the Promenade accident and the footage was nearly identical in that it showed a confused Weller wandering around his crashed car in a heavily populated, public area. This further sparked debate surrounding what warning signs authorities should examine when dealing with driving privileges and the elderly.
On July 24, 2003, it was reported that state officials revoked Weller's driver's license.
On January 5, 2004, the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office charged George Russell Weller with ten counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence, carrying a penalty of up to 18 years in prison. Weller's attorneys were ordered to surrender their client within 24 hours.
On January 6, 2004, Weller pleaded not guilty to the charges before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paula Adele Mabrey and was released on his own recognizance.
On January 14, 2004, victims and relatives filed suit against the City of Santa Monica and Bayside District Corp., organizers of the Santa Monica farmers' market, alleging that the accident could have been prevented by the installation of metal barriers. Attorney Geoff Wells, representing victims and their relatives, remarked that "[The defendants] failed to take any reasonable steps to provide protection for the patrons at the farmer's market."
On October 25, 2004, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Katherine Mader convened a preliminary hearing to determine whether Weller would stand trial.
On November 3, 2004, Weller was ordered to stand trial, and his arraignment was scheduled for November 17.
On December 8, 2004, after a delay due to poor health, Weller was arraigned, again pleaded not guilty to the charges, and waived his right to a speedy trial.
On March 18, 2005, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert O'Neill denied a motion by Weller's attorneys to dismiss the manslaughter charges, remarking that "hitting the accelerator instead of the brake seems to me to be a clearly negligent act."
On October 20, 2006, by a unanimous verdict, jurors found Weller guilty on all charges, convicting him of vehicular manslaughter for killing 10 pedestrians. The sentence was to be decided by the Court, with a maximum penalty of 18 years.
On November 20, 2006, Weller received probation on all counts after a judge determined that Weller was too ill to go to prison, where he would likely be a burden on prison authorities and taxpayers. Weller was a month short of his 90th birthday. He was also ordered to pay more than $100,000 in fines and restitution to the victims' families.
On May 22, 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported that the City of Santa Monica had thus far paid out $21 million to settle dozens of civil lawsuits stemming from the case. The same article also noted that Weller, age 91, was now confined to his home and receiving 24-hour nursing care.
On December 9, 2010, George Russell Weller died at age 94.
- "Judge: Market crash driver too ill for prison". CNN.com. 2006-11-20.
- "Driver charged in fatal farmers' market crash". CNN.com. 2004-01-05. Retrieved 2007-07-06.
- "SMPD Files Farmers' Market Case with D.A., Recommends Charge of Manslaughter". Santa Monica Mirror. 2004-12-23. Retrieved 2007-07-06.
- Verhoeven, Peter (2005-01-05). "86-year-old man drove at speeds of 40 to 60 miles per hour into a crowd of people gathered at an outdoor Farmers Market in downtown Santa Monica". magnifiers.org. Retrieved 2007-07-06.
- Herrera, Kevin (2006-06-24). "Judge Rules That Step Up On Second Must Also Stand Trial". Santa Monica Daily Press.
- Spano, John (2006-09-04). "Trial in market crash set to begin". The Los Angeles Times.