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Sonoma County running out of options in pothole lawsuit that won cyclist $1.9 million verdict

Sonoma County is running out of legal options to avoid a $1.9 million payout stemming from injuries a cyclist suffered more than four years ago when she struck a massive pothole in west county.

Catherine Williams, a behavioral sciences professor and dean at Santa Rosa Junior College, hasn’t collected a penny from the verdict a jury awarded her in December, as county lawyers have appealed the case.

The latest ruling last month from the 1st District of the Court of Appeals went against the county, and the same court on Friday rejected a request for a rehearing, leaving the county one last resort: an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Williams’ attorneys and newfound cycling allies say it’s time for the county to do right by Williams, who suffered major injuries to her head, face, teeth and shoulder after she hit a 4-foot by 3-foot pothole in July 2016 near the Canfield Cemetery, about 5 miles south of Sebastopol.

“The county needs to take responsibility,” said Celine Cutter, one of Williams’ attorneys. “The jury found, the court affirmed, and now the court of appeals has affirmed that the county is responsible for Ms. Williams’ injuries.”

Sonoma County attorney Mike King said via email a decision has not been made on whether to appeal to the state’s highest court, a course of action county supervisors will have to endorse. The board doesn’t meet this week.

“The county believes its position was supported by the applicable law and had hoped for clarification on the applicability of the assumption of the risk doctrine,” King said.

Williams, who has previously declined to comment, could not be reached.

Since a jury first sided with Williams in December 2018, the case has drawn 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. It has also drawn the interest of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, which has followed and documented the case.

In a public post to the coalition’s website titled, “Justice for Catherine Williams…and all cyclists,” the group stresses the need for cyclist-safe streets.

“We promote ourselves as a bicycle, tourist destination,” said Eris Weaver, the coalition’s executive director, said in an interview Monday. “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.”

Weaver and other residents have pleaded for years for fixes to the county’s crumbling road network, which is regularly graded among the worst in the Bay Area.

But county officials point to the 1,370-miles of roadways, the most of any county in the Bay Area, as a heavy lift for a less-populated, more suburban county where the road maintenance backlog tops $1 billion.

Statewide, that number tops $68 billion, according to analysis provided by the California State Association of Counties, which argued against a ruling in Williams’ favor, citing what the group’s lawyers called a “Herculean task” that might be required if Williams prevailed.

“Given the vast number of miles to be maintained and the significant funding shortfalls in road maintenance funding, it is simply not feasible, no matter how diligent the effort, for cities and counties to maintain roads in a manner that would remove all hazards for individuals cycling at high speeds,” the association wrote in its brief.

Both the association and Sonoma County centered their arguments on the nature of Williams’ outing, which they described as part of training for a 100-mile ride and featuring speeds and distances well beyond that of normal rides.

They called the ride “inherently risky,” and county attorneys contended that people such as Williams who engage in such activities must assume the attendant risks.

But Weaver, who knows the financial strain that local governments face in repairing roads, also said it’s a matter of priorities, meaning the county could authorize more spending on roadways to make them bicycle-safe.

“Obviously, the reason the county and other jurisdictions pursue this is not just because of this one case. They worry about everybody suing them right and left,” Weaver said. “But at this point, yeah, face the music, and pay the judgment and move on.”

In its Sept. 28 ruling, a three-judge panel for the 1st Appellate District found that the county had defined its duty to its residents too narrowly, and that it did owe riders like Williams some measure of safety, particularly with a pothole that had been the subject of prior complaints. County maintenance staff testified during the initial trial that the pothole would pose a danger to people regardless of their mode of transportation.

The original jury verdict came from a 2017 lawsuit filed by Williams after the crash. Her suit sought an undetermined sum to cover medical expenses, pain and suffering, lost wages and attorneys’ fees.

Williams’ attorney said the appellate court’s support of the lower court verdict was vindicating.

“The idea that a county is not responsible for maintaining the roads and the risk that a large pothole like this would not be the county’s responsibility is a patently absurd idea from the beginning, and the court just affirmed that,” Cutter said.

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

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