Whether a bereaved family will win a sizable judgment in a civil negligence trial against The Cliffs Resort is up to a jury after attorneys presented closing arguments Wednesday following two weeks of testimony.
The husband and daughter of Tricia Rittger, 39, are seeking $21.7 million in compensatory damages from Cliffs Resort LLC and its owner, King Ventures.
Her family argues that the Cliffs’ management was negligent in not enforcing a parking policy dictated by the property’s conditional-use permit issued in 1984 that limits access to a 48-spot parking lot on the east side of Shell Beach Road to employees, forcing guests to use the lot as overflow and cross the sometimes dangerous road.
Attorneys for the Cliffs Resort allege that Rittger was texting and distracted before she was struck by a southbound vehicle.
Michael Alder, the Rittgers’ attorney, told jurors in his closing arguments that the hotel failed to enforce its own parking policy and that there is no documentation to show any employee was ever disciplined for not parking in the designated lot.
“They did nothing to put the fear of God in their employees,” Alder said.
He argued that the hotel did not enforce the policy until it was fined by the city of Pismo Beach.
“Even after Mrs. Rittger’s death, they did nothing,” Alder said. “Not only is that negligence, it’s a clear disregard for the safety of their guests.”
Rittger’s husband, Aaron Rittger, choked back tears as Alder left a fold-out mural of family photos in front of the jury as a recess was called by Superior Court Judge Barry LaBarbera.
Darren Epps, attorney for King Ventures, said Wednesday that the hotel and management did act on the parking situation, including expanding a complimentary valet service.
“Nobody was forced to park across the street except for the employees,” Epps told the jury. “They don’t have the option of valet parking. Mrs. Rittger did.”
Epps said it was the Cliffs’ management’s position that the parking situation was reasonably safe and that people crossed Shell Beach Road to and from the hotel some 70,000 times a year based on the 48 parking spots in the eastern lot, which equates to nearly 1.7 million crossings since King Ventures bought the hotel in 1990. Rittger was the first hotel guest struck crossing Shell Beach Road to or from the hotel in that time, Epps said.
He further defended hotel management’s inaction, noting that other requirements of the permit such as a raised median were historically never met at the property.
“(Conditional use permits) change over time,” Epps said. “There was no indication those requirements were valid and still needed to be complied with.”
Lastly, Epps said there was no justification for damages.
“This case is an absolute tragedy,” he added, “but we all have to take responsibility for our own safety.”
The family is seeking $21.7 million in compensatory damages, a figure that includes a mutually agreed upon $1.7 million in lost wages as well as $10 million apiece for Rittger’s husband and daughter in non-economic damages.
Should the jury award compensatory damages, a second mini-trial could follow to determine any punitive damages against the hotel.
In October 2013, the Rittger family settled a lawsuit with the city of Pismo Beach for $1.5 million. The city is now attempting to recoup those costs from the Cliffs.
Following a brief session Wednesday afternoon, the jury will reconvene for deliberations Monday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court.