For more than three decades, Fresno State students, motorists and pedestrians had to cautiously navigate one of the busiest intersections in the city – Cedar Avenue and Bulldog Lane – without the benefit of a key traffic light.
In 1979, Fresno State Student Body President David Ditora wrote to city officials, complaining that the intersection “has become a veritable danger zone.” He suggested that a left-turn signal on northbound Cedar at Bulldog Lane would aid in alleviating the problem. The city told Ditora that it would put the intersection on a list of locations that would be studied.
Over the years, the city received numerous other complaints about the intersection, but the traffic control devices remained without a left-turn signal.
The issue came to a head in April 2014 when Clovis motorcyclist Steven Kennedy collided with a car making a U-turn on Cedar Avenue at Bulldog Lane. Kennedy’s injuries were so severe, he had to have his left leg amputated below the knee and have some of his ribs replaced with titanium.
Worst of all, Kennedy’s fearless approach to life and his ability to resume work in the oil fields are gone, says Fresno attorney Warren Paboojian, who sued the city of Fresno on Kennedy’s behalf.
The city has a responsibility to protect the citizens of this community.
Fresno attorney Warren Paboojian
In a civil trial that began Wednesday, Paboojian is seeking millions of dollars in damages from the city for Kennedy’s past and future medical bills, lost wages, and for his pain and suffering. He told the jury the evidence will show that city officials put the public at risk for waiting to install a left-turn signal at northbound Cedar Avenue at Bulldog Lane.
Though the driver of the car that hit Kennedy caused his injuries, Paboojian told a Fresno County Superior Court jury that the city also is liable for neglecting to fix the dangerous intersection after residents complained about it.
Fresno attorney K. Poncho Baker, who represents the city, told the jury that the city owes Kennedy nothing. Baker also said the intersection has always been safe, even before the left-turn light was installed in 2015.
According to Baker, the driver who hit Kennedy is solely liable and that Kennedy’s inattention to traffic conditions contributed to the collision. Though city officials received complaints about the intersection, Baker said: “The city is under no obligation to make it absolutely safe. It just has to be reasonably safe.”
It’s not the first time Paboojian has tangled with the city over a controversial roadway. In September 2014, Paboojian received a $1.15 million settlement on behalf of the family of 7-year-old Donovan Maldonado, who was killed by a drunken driver while in a crosswalk near Woodward Park. Paboojian argued that the crosswalk on Shepherd Avenue was dangerous. Loren LeBeau, who went to prison for killing Donovan, paid $100,000 from his car insurance.
In presenting Kennedy’s claim for damages, Paboojian told the jury that the city ignored the complaints about the intersection from 1979 to 2004, when city officials finally decided there needed to be a dedicated left-hand turn light to control traffic. But it took the city until 2015 to install the signal at a cost of $280,000 – a year after Kennedy’s brush with death, Paboojian said.
“The city has a responsibility to protect the citizens of this community,” Paboojian said, referring to Kennedy’s injuries. “When they don’t listen to the public’s concerns, things like this are bound to happen.”
The city is under no obligation to make it absolutely safe. It just has to be reasonably safe.
Fresno attorney K. Poncho Baker
The trial in Judge Rosemary McGuire’s courtroom is expected to take a month.
Obstructed view or not attentive?
A key witness will be Scott Mozier, the city’s public works director, who has said in a deposition that “he knew something needed to be done to reduce accidents of misjudgments caused by a driver turning in front oncoming traffic,” according to Paboojian’s trial brief.
The intersection, west of the Fresno State campus, is heavily traveled by pedestrians and motor vehicles heading to school, Bulldog Stadium and Bieden Field. It is shaped like a T and controlled by traffic lights.
Before the left-hand turn signal was installed, motorists driving north or south on Cedar were required to yield the right of way to oncoming vehicles before making a U- or left turn onto Bulldog Lane.
But that didn’t happen on April 30, 2014, around 3:30 p.m., when Kennedy was riding his 2010 Harley Davidson motorcycle south on Cedar Avenue. He drove through the intersection on a green light and collided with a 2008 Dodge Avenger driver by Michael Bravo, 23 and a Fresno State student.
The trial probes the April 2014 collision in which motorcyclist Steven Kennedy’s injures were so severe, he had to get his left leg amputated.
A police report says Bravo made a U-turn from the left-hand turn lane of northbound Cedar Avenue in front of Kennedy’s motorcycle, causing the collision by failing to yield to oncoming traffic. The impact caused Kennedy, then 48 years old, to be ejected from his motorcycle. His body struck a pole before coming to rest on the sidewalk. Bystanders administered first aid until paramedics arrived. The police report said Kennedy could not give a statement because he was placed in a medically induced coma. Kennedy later received a $15,000 settlement from Bravo’s insurance policy.
The police report says Bravo said his vision of Kennedy was obscured by a blue van that had stopped for the red light in the left lane of southbound traffic. Paboojian told the jury that Bravo darted out into the intersection once the light turned green because he wanted to make the U-turn before southbound traffic prevented him from doing it.
Paboojian said Kennedy did nothing wrong to cause the collision; he was not speeding or driving recklessly. The speed limit on Cedar is 40 mph, but Kennedy was going less than 20 mph because he was slowing for the red light at Bulldog Lane, Paboojian said..
Baker, however, said Kennedy accelerated into the intersection once the light turned green. He said Kennedy would have seen Bravo making the U-turn if he had been paying attention. Baker estimated Kennedy had eight to 12 second to scan the traffic before the collision. “You’re suppose to evaluate risk,” he told the jury.
Since the collision, Kennedy, 51, of Clovis, has had at least 10 surgeries to reconstruct his right elbow, amputate his leg, and repair other body parts.
Surgeries and job loss
Since the collision, Kennedy, has had at least 10 surgeries to reconstruct his right elbow, amputate his leg and repair other injuries, Paboojian told the jury. Kennedy also has undergone multiple sessions of physical therapy, takes medication for pain and anxiety and sees a therapist.
Before he lost his leg, Paboojian said Kennedy made more than $170,000 a year plus benefits by working in the oil fields of California, Oklahoma and Arkansas. “He’s the salt of the earth,” Paboojian told the jury, describing how Kennedy worked his way up from oil driller to drill site manager.
After the accident, Kennedy tried to return to work, Paboojian said, but was unable to handle the rigorous demands of the job because of his amputated leg and injured arm.
Paboojian and co-counsel, attorneys Adam Stirrup and Nolan Kane, insist in court papers that the city contributed to the collision because it didn’t fix an intersection that is “dangerously designed.”
Over the years, Paboojian told the jury, the intersection had become increasingly dangerous because Fresno State enrollment climbed. Paboojian said he has retained a traffic engineering expert who said the intersection posed an unreasonable risk to the public, particularly as it relates to northbound traffic making U-turns or left-hand turns. Paboojian pointed out that traffic on Cedar often backs up in both directions, causing drivers to get frustrated and drive carelessly.
But Baker and co-counsel attorney William Bruce contend the city did its due diligence by putting the intersection on a priority list once it was determined it needed a left-turn lane. The intersection, Baker told the jury, never posed a substantial risk to the public when “motorists use due care.”