Road Design Case Results in Safer Roads for California

January 1, 2010

Schmidt vs. California is an example of award-winning consumer attorneys at work not only for an individual but for all people. When Clete Schmidt got in a horrific accident at a rural T-intersection that left him a quadriplegic, Baker, Burton & Lundy made sure that California roadway managers Caltrans were brought to court for their negligent management of the dangerous intersection that caused Schmidt’s life-changing accident. For this work, Albro Lundy III received the prestigious award of 2009 Trial Lawyer of the Year for California.

What Happened to Clete Schmidt

On the night of January 16, 2006 the case’s plaintiff, Clete Schmidt, a retired seventy-seven-year-old attorney, was on his way to Lake Havasu. Unable to see a stop sign in time, he crashed into a five-foot stony embankment just beyond a T-intersection. His Ford Crown Victoria was destroyed and Clete was close to death throughout his two month stay in intensive care. When he could finally leave the hospital, the impact had left him a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic with limited arm movement.

Taking the Case

In the early stages of investigation it appeared that there was no concrete evidence of liability against Caltrans. In fact, Albro Lundy III characterized the case as having a 5% chance of winning. But despite the great difficulty and expense the case would bring the company, the partners’ vote was unanimous to accept the challenge. It was simply the right thing to do.

The case began with an extensive discovery campaign by Albro Lundy III and his team. This included multiple trips to the Caltrans archives in San Bernardino and Sacramento and literally hundreds of hours spent at and around the scene of the accident by Albro and his associates to uncover witnesses and evidence regarding whether the roadway was unsafe.

Breakthrough and Mounting Evidence

During an interview with a longtime resident of Riverside County, the resident recalled that many years previously, the roadway had contained Botts dots which had been removed or destroyed, but had not been replaced. Botts dots are ceramic discs placed in the road to warn the driver through vibration of upcoming road changes, and Caltrans knew the Botts dots were an important warning system when approaching a stop sign in the desert. They had, in fact, replaced them at least once in the 1990s, but despite photos within their own files that showed the current state of deterioration, nothing had been done or planned for the near future.

Searching further, the team discovered that in addition to the missing Botts dots, a large double arrow “End of the Road” sign had been removed or lost and not replaced. An added danger was the man-made berm that cut into the road across from the stop sign, eliminating the room needed for recovery should a driver fail to slow down at a T-intersection. The truth was that this was a highly dangerous intersection that had been ignored for years: there had been 23 accidents in the 10 years prior to the Schmidt accident, with predominantly elderly drivers.

Presenting the Case

In an isolated Riverside County school house courtroom, BB&L’s litigation team developed, organized and presented a month-long case on the road’s dangers and its consequences for Clete Schmidt and his family. They produced a “Day in the Life” video showing the jury the catastrophic changes in Clete Schmidt’s life. They also presented courtroom graphics, computer simulations, and testimony from the life care planner, economic expert, medical fact witness, liability experts and ten lay witnesses.

The Verdict

The jury results came in with an astonishing outcome for Clete Schmidt and his wife Marlene: $11.6 million for Clete’s injuries and future medical bills, as well as one of the highest damage awards ever for loss of consortium. The verdict itself was remarkable both in terms of the liability apportionment and the damages awarded.

Help for All California Drivers

This case instigated many changes at Caltrans. Since the verdict, it began a review to make sure that the safety devices in similar T-intersections are installed and not missing across the state. The implementation of these safety devices at the intersection of Mr. Schmidt’s accident resulted in a drop to zero accidents in the following 15 months, illustrating immediate and lasting improvement in roadway safety. This intersection and all T-intersections throughout the State of California will be safer because of this verdict.

Baker, Burton & Lundy’s Success

In Schmidt vs. California, Baker, Burton & Lundy’s litigation team fought with the same tenacity they fight every case. They conducted several months of their own investigation and incurred the financial burden of putting on a case against a state agency with governmental immunities and vast resources.

Not only did the team win and make roadways safer for all California drivers, Albro Lundy received the coveted award of 2009 Trial Lawyer of the Year for California for his work on the Schmidt case.

For more information on this case, watch the video to the right.