County to appeal $1.9 million awarded to cyclist injured in pothole crash

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Wheel-eating potholes that have led to dozens of vehicle-damage claims against Sonoma County are now at the center of a lawsuit that threatens to cost taxpayers about $1.9 million after a bicyclist was severely injured on a rural, cratered road.

Catherine Williams is a behavioral sciences professor and dean at Santa Rosa Junior College. On July 10, 2016, she was riding her bicycle with a friend south of Sebastopol, near the Canfield Cemetery at Bloomfield and Canfield roads. The area is scenic and serene, with roadside trees casting dappled shadows that belie danger, including the 4-foot by 3-foot pothole Williams struck that morning.

She went head over handlebars, landing hard on the asphalt. Her face broke the fall.

She suffered severe injuries to her head, face, teeth and shoulder, including a concussion and brain damage, according to her 2017 lawsuit, filed against the county and officials connected to its Department of Transportation and Public Works. Along with the injuries came significant medical expenses and time off of work, according to the complaint.

“These expenses, plus her lost earnings and lost future earnings due to her impaired cognitive function, support a significant initial demand for Ms. Williams’ losses,” the complaint reads, in part.

Williams declined an interview request. Her suit sought an undetermined sum to cover medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost wages and attorneys’ fees.

The county argued it was Williams’ responsibility to avoid the pothole, and that she assumed the risk in riding her bike that day.

A jury disagreed, awarding Williams $1.85 million in December. More than $1.6 million of that was for current and future pain and suffering. Another $200,000 went toward medical bills.

Now the county is appealing the jury’s verdict.

Williams’ attorney, Todd Walburg, with Sacramento-based Cutter Law, said the county’s appeal is a lost cause.

“It’s time for the county to take responsibility,” Walburg said.

Local residents have made the same plea for years when it comes to poor county road conditions, regularly graded as the worst in the Bay Area.

County officials have long acknowledged the 1,370-mile network remains in serious need of repair. Prior underinvestment, officials say, resulted in a maintenance backlog that stands at more than $1.4 billion.

But the roads are getting better, county officials insist. Supervisor Susan Gorin said she was proud of the work the county has done, including spending $76 million to repave 330 miles of roads since 2014 and promising another $36 million through 2021 for 51 more miles.

But the county has been loathe to pony up money for road-related damage claims filed under a state law that says public entities such as a public works department can be held liable for dangerous conditions on their property.

The county has denied all but a dozen of the 200-plus claims filed since 2013.

Some were denied because of unforeseen damage linked to such things as destructive storms, others for a lack of notice about the road conditions in question. Williams’ crash took place during the busiest year for pothole-related claims in the past six years, and her pothole had at least twice been singled out for attention by a neighbor, according to the lawsuit. The road, generally, had several documented complaints, according to the lawsuit.

“Defendants knowingly left this dangerous condition uncorrected for weeks or months,” according to the lawsuit.

County crews repaired the pothole the same night Williams was injured, Walburg said, indicating the county knew of the problem and was fully capable of quickly addressing it.

Public Works Director Johannes Hoevertsz, through a spokesman, declined to comment on Williams’ case.

“I can share that we’re always evaluating guidelines and practices, including following any incident of this nature,” the spokesman, Daniel Virkstis, said in an email. Were they alerted?

Three years later, the pothole that Williams hit doesn’t exist as a result of repairs. But roads in that area of the county, south of Sebastopol and west of Cotati — a region spanned by farm roads paved over decades ago with asphalt — remain scarred with gashes and other small craters. Some of the potholes are outlined by bright orange spray paint.

Since 2013, the county has paid out less than $8,000 in claims stemming from such crumbling roads.

That sum could grow by nearly $2 million if the county loses its appeal.

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