LOS ANGELES (CBSLA.com) — 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 2012 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.
"It stands as a big symbolic victory, but mostly, I'm just excited to know that my losses weren't made in vain," the 29-year-old Ekbatani told KCAL9 Monday.
He hugged his lawyers as the verdict was read.
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.
"Here we are, 11 years after they were notified of this dangerous condition, and that fix still has not been implemented," Mardirossian said to KCAL9.
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.
Ekbatani was a football standout at South High in Torrance and at UCLA, where he played from 2006-09.
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.
A Caltrans spokesperson provided KCAL9 with the following statement Monday night:
"While we appreciate the terrible difficulties Mr. Ekbatani has gone through, the department is reviewing the case and will weigh whether to appeal today's decision."
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