A two-lane section of Highway 1 south of Hearst Castle that allows drivers to pass other vehicles is dangerous and should be fixed to prevent possible collisions, a Paso Robles jury found last week.
Following a monthlong trial in Paso Robles, jurors reached a verdict in the personal injury lawsuit of a Pennsylvania man who was badly injured and whose wife was killed in a head-on collision at the location between Hearst Castle and San Simeon in 2011.
While they agreed with the plaintiff that the stretch of highway was “in a dangerous condition,” at the time of the crash, jurors did not find there was “a reasonable, foreseeable risk of injury” that would be required to hold Caltrans liable for damages.
Caltrans is under no obligation to change the roadway because of the verdict, but all 12 jurors are co-authoring a letter to the agency urging them to restripe the stretch to prevent passing, which is estimated to cost about $5,000, said the plaintiff’s attorney, Jim Wagstaffe.
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In response to questions from The Tribune, Caltrans spokesman Jim Shivers wrote in an email that the agency had not received the letter.
“In regard to this entire issue, Caltrans will not comment further at this time because of the potential for an appeal, leading to further litigation,” Shivers wrote Tuesday.
If a jury has found that a public roadway is not safe for the public, it is inconceivable that Caltrans wouldn’t fix that roadway.
James Wagstaffe, attorney for the family of Peter Fuller
In October 2011, former Cambria resident Jeffrey LaChance was driving northbound in a two-lane section of Highway 1 between Hearst Castle and San Simeon when he crossed the broken yellow line into the southbound lane to pass a slow-moving tourist bus.
Almost immediately after he crossed over, LaChance’s Toyota Tundra pickup slammed head-on into a Toyota Camry driven by 61-year-old Peter Fuller, then a resident of Emmaus, Pennsylvania. Fuller’s wife, Joan, 63, was killed instantly.
Alcohol or drug impairment was not a factor in the crash, though the CHP told The Tribune at the time that unsafe passing caused the collision despite the location being in a legal passing area, which contained a curve with limited visibility.
According to the lawsuit filed by Fuller’s family, there were no mechanical defects found in either vehicle and LaChance, a former volunteer firefighter in Cambria, had driven that section of road for nearly 20 years, he told the CHP. The crash occurred near mile marker “1 SLO 55.50.”
CHP investigators found that LaChance had accelerated to approximately 79 mph trying to overtake the bus, and the Fuller’s Camry was driving at or below the speed limit of 55 mph, the lawsuit says. According to Fuller’s attorneys, the black box on Fuller’s vehicle showed that he didn’t apply his brakes until 1.8 seconds before impact.
LaChance was initially charged with vehicular homicide with gross negligence but pleaded no contest in 2012 to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter with ordinary negligence and misdemeanor reckless driving causing injury.
Fuller remained in intensive care for more than a week and has required 24-hour care ever since due to severe and permanent brain injuries suffered in the crash, Wagstaffe said.
The lawsuit alleged that Caltrans was negligent in maintaining that section of highway, calling it a “grossly inappropriate” place for a passing zone.
“The curvature of the road makes it a dangerous place to allow passing and creates sightline obstructions to motorists traveling in both (directions),” the lawsuit reads. “This problem is only increased by the constant presence of tourist buses, which are ubiquitous in this tourist region of State Route 1.”
The complaint added that the area’s lack of shoulders and “bail-out” options puts motorists in both lanes of the highway “in a position of peril.”
The trial began Nov. 8 and featured testimony from LaChance and several CHP officers, according to court records. The jury reached its verdict Dec. 12, with 10 of 12 jurors concluding the highway is in a dangerous condition and all agreeing that Caltrans was not liable, according to court records.
Wagstaffe said his clients may appeal the ruling but not seek damages in order to compel a fix.
“My clients want that roadway fixed,” Wagstaffe said. “If a jury has found that a public roadway is not safe for the public, it is inconceivable that Caltrans wouldn’t fix that roadway.”