Caltrans was ordered Monday to pay $27.5 million to a former UCLA offensive lineman who lost part of his left leg below the knee in a motorcycle crash, with a jury finding the agency was negligent by failing to make a Redondo Beach intersection safer despite knowing about previous collisions at the location.
The Los Angeles Superior Court jury's overall verdict in favor of Amir "Nick" Ekbatani was $35 million, but the portion that Caltrans must pay was reduced by the jury's finding of shared negligence by the taxi van driver who struck the plaintiff, Mesfin Kinfu, according to plaintiff's attorney Garo Mardirossian.
Ekbatani, 29, hugged his lawyers as the verdict was read. "It's been four and a half years, and obviously it's been up and down, ebb and flow, completely non-linear, but I'm just grateful to be on the other side of things and walking and so just grateful to be alive and obviously grateful with this verdict," Ekbatani said.
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Ekbatani said that with the jury's decision, he knows his injuries were not suffered in vain. Asked about his feelings toward Kinfu, Ekbatani said he believed the man would have stopped had he seen him and had the intersection been improved so Kinfu could have seen oncoming traffic.
Mardirossian said Caltrans has still not made any changes at the intersection, but he predicted they would do so within a year because of the verdict.
"You know, we have these governmental entities that are supposed to do the right thing for us to keep our streets and highways safe," Mardirossian said. "And when they themselves come out and see that there's a dangerous condition and yet don't take the necessary steps to correct the problem when they themselves noticed the problem is wrong."
During his final argument, Mardirossian said the state of California and Caltrans knew about complaints made years earlier by residents about the intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Diamond Street, but did nothing to correct the problem before his client's accident.
Caltrans attorney Jill Siciliano countered that the intersection, which the state inherited from the city of Redondo Beach, is not dangerous. She blamed the accident on Kinfu.
"We are here because Mr. Kinfu caused this accident," Siciliano said. "He cut the corner and he caused Mr. Ekbatani's injuries."
Siciliano said Kinfu was familiar with the intersection because he had made a left turn there hundreds of times before. But this time he did not take the proper precautions, she said. "He never hit his brakes, he never stopped," Siciliano said.
According to Mardirossian, Ekbatani was riding his motorcycle north on PCH about 10:20 p.m. July 14, 2012, when Kinfu, heading south, failed to yield the right-of-way when turning left onto Diamond Street, colliding with the motorcycle. Mardirossian said the intersection is considered "skewed" because Diamond Street crosses PCH at a diagonal so severe that Caltrans is obligated to take extra precautions to protect motorists.
He said the crash was preventable had a left-turn signal been in place, because a red light would have stopped Kinfu from making his turn while Ekbatani was proceeding on a green light. Mardirossian said other measures available included the striping of two double-yellow lines to form a simulated median on the pavement that would have forced Kinfu and other motorists to drive further toward the center of the intersection before turning left.
That measure would have given Ekbatani the extra time he needed to get through the intersection before Kinfu's van smashed into his leg, Mardirossian said. Mardirossian used video footage to show jurors how motorists traveling south on PCH go up a gradual incline that does not allow them to fully view oncoming traffic until they reach the intersection.
Ekbatani was a football standout at South High in Torrance and UCLA, where he played from 2006-09. He was presented with two game balls for victories over the University of Washington and the University of Tennessee, Mardirossian said.
After his playing career concluded, Ekbatani shed nearly one-third of his playing weight of more than 300 pounds, obtained an MBA at USC and did a stint at ESPN, Mardirossian said. He underwent 13 surgeries on his left leg and always carries a backpack with him that contains supplies to help him tend to that limb, Mardirossian said. Ekbatani also sued Kinfu, but settled that part of the case before trial.