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Sonoma County won’t appeal $1.3 million verdict in cyclist’s pothole case

Catherine Williams, the local cyclist who suffered grievous injuries in a 2016 crash that she blamed on the poor state of a Sonoma County road, has won her three-year legal battle against the county and is set to be paid more than $1 million as a result.

It’s been two years since a local jury ruled in her favor and more than four since she rode her bicycle inadvertently into a yawning west county pothole and crashed, leaving her hospitalized with head injuries and unable to work for a long stretch afterward.

The Board of Supervisors agreed last week to drop its bid to overturn the verdict, which was upheld by the 1st District Court of Appeal in September.

“It’s good for her to get some closure so she can move on, and so she can receive the funds,” said Charles Dell’Ario, William’s Napa-based appellate specialist attorney. “Money is no substitute for your good health, and Catherine suffered a lot through this.”

After losing out at the appellate court level, the county’s decision to forgo an appeal to the state Supreme Court was the right decision, said Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

“I don’t believe we should be wasting taxpayer money on suits like this, honestly,” she said. “I think we need to do a better job of making sure cyclists are protected.”

The county’s decision paves the way for a payout of $1.33 million, plus 7% interest accumulated since the December 2018 jury verdict in Sonoma County Superior Court. The initial $1.9 million award for Williams was reduced by 30% due to a finding that Williams was at least partially responsible in the crash, Dell’Ario said.

Williams could not be reached for comment, but Dell’Ario said the legal team was delighted at the county’s move to drop any further appeal. Any such case could have faced long odds of being heard by the state’s high court, which gets at least 3,500 petitions for review annually, and grants only about 55 of those, Dell’Ario said.

The county had contended that Williams was solely to blame in the crash, though the trial showed that county road officials knew of the problem pothole and sent crews to repair it hours after her wreck.

“I always felt the county’s position was kind of wrong-headed on this,” Dell’Ario said said. “Not just with what the law dictates, but what kind of message should they be sending to their citizenry?”

Williams, a behavioral sciences professor and dean at Santa Rosa Junior College, was riding with a friend on the morning of July 10 south of Sebastopol. Trees lining Bloomfield Road left the surface in shadow, preventing Williams from seeing the 4-foot by 3-foot pothole.

The wreck vaulted her over her handlebars, and she landed face-first on the road, suffering severe injuries to her head, face, teeth and shoulder, according to her 2017 lawsuit against the county and officials connected to its Department of Transportation and Public Works.

The crash occurred during the busiest year for pothole-related claims in at least the past six years, and the involved pothole had twice been singled out for attention by a neighbor, according to the initial lawsuit.

County maintenance staff testified at trial that the pothole would pose a danger to people regardless of their mode of transportation.

“Their failure to repair it in time was unreasonable,” Dell’Ario said. “They did have notice, and it only took them a few hundred dollars worth of materials to patch the hole.”

The legal battle drew statewide interest, yielding friend-of-the-court briefs supporting Sonoma County from the California State Association of Counties, and in Williams’ favor from Consumer Attorneys of California. The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition also followed along and chronicled any updates on the case for its members.

“We promote ourselves as a bicycle, tourist destination,” said Eris Weaver, the coalition’s executive director. “If we’re trying to become more bike friendly, and the county has all of the goals about climate change, to say, ‘OK, we’re not going to take responsibility for the roads,’ is kind of contradictory.”

Zane, who will leave office at the end of December after 12 years as supervisor, said the county must continue to address road safety for cyclists.

“This will be a continued issue, because Sonoma County is so attractive to cyclists all over the country,” Zane said. “And we should be paying close attention.”

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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