Having worked with elderly clients for years, I know the struggle families face when they come to the “crossroads of life” in many arenas. There are so many things that can go wrong to cramp your style when it comes to independence. However, when it begins to impact others such as driving, we have to balance this privilege with public safety.
Do we help someone maintain their dignity and independence at the risk of their life and the lives of others? I think not. All of us will have to give up this rite of passage at some point. The question becomes, where do we draw the line? Is it a score on a driver’s re-training test? It is so many interactions, close calls or lapses in judgement or concentration? There is no uniformity nationally. Each state has its own criteria.
The 2003 case of 86 year of George Weller from Santa Monica, California may seem obvious on the face of it. When I looked closer, I was appalled at the true facts from a variety of sources. This case illustrates the perfect storm – a disaster of mass proportion that NEVER should have occurred. It will live in infamy for the 80+ families experiencing death or serious injury as well as the entire community.
- Officers interviewed more than 100 witnesses, who gave conflicting reports regarding the driver’s demeanor at the time of the incident.
- After it was over, witnesses said he yelled at pedestrians, “You saw me coming. Why didn’t you get out of my way?”
- “Sixty miles per hour and it wasn’t slowing down. It was flying. And then people down, dead and everything,” said David Lang, manager of a shoe store along the market route.
- One witness said: “It was like a Sherman tank barreling through, hitting everything, and just going right over people.
- “He was not only speeding, he was accelerating.”
- “He looked very, very confused,” Crisman said. “I think he was just mentally out of touch. He seemed very confused when he stepped out of the car. He definitely shouldn’t have been behind the wheel.
- “I heard a car just hit, bang, bang, bang,” said Mojgan Pour, 38. “I heard people screaming. By the time I looked, I never even saw the car. I tried to help a man and he died while I was helping him.
- Witnesses testified that he stared straight ahead with both hands on the steering wheel while bodies flew over the hood of his car.
- Bodies were sprawled all over in the strawberries.
Facts of the Case:
- On July 16, 2003, at 1:47 p.m. this 86-year-old drove his 1992 Buick LeSabre (weighing 3,340 lbs.) at moderate to high-speed for at least 3 blocks into crowds of people congregating at the popular Santa Monica Farmer’s Market at the Third Street Promenade. This market is the largest and oldest organic market held every Wednesday and Saturday on Arizona Avenue between 2nd and 4th Street;
- The Market was established in July 1981 with 75 farmers and thousands of pedestrians visiting bi-weekly. Arizona Avenue ends at the ocean and is blocked off during market days.
- Weller intended to mail a letter, drove westbound down Arizona Avenue , initially striking a 2003 Mercedes-Benz stopped at a cross walk.
- He then accelerated around a road closure sign, through wooden saw Horses and into the crowd ~ 1,000 feet going 40 to 60 mph in just 10 seconds;
- Significant was the fact that no brake lights were noted by witnesses. Weller didn’t move, effectively steering his car down the middle of the street into people versus trying to avoid hitting pedestrian versus steering into saw horses and fruits –vegetables, this avoiding self-injury.
- Weller’s car finally came to a stop after hitting a ditch when a body became entangled underneath his car and others flying in the air, landing on the hood;
- In 2000, he passed a written test with a fairly high score and there the requirements stopped for license renewal. He had heart disease, but no report stated he had any significant side effect from his medication, nor was any alcohol found.
- In the immediate aftermath in which George Weller plowed his big car into the crowd, 9 people were killed and 54 hurt which increased to 10 dead and over 70 injured.
- On July 24, 2003, it was reported that state officials revoked Weller’s driver’s license;
Court Proceedings- Main Issues for the Jury-
Did Weller have control of the car during the 10-20 seconds; The prosecution said yes, he had plenty of time to “self-correct”. The defense claimed “pedal error”- confusing the brake for the accelerator
What was the definition of Felony Gross Negligence- “More than ordinary carelessness, inattention or mistake in judgement.”
- On January 6, 2004, Weller pleaded not guilty to the charges before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Paula Adele Mabrey and was released on his own recognizance.
- On January 14, 2004, victims and relatives filed suit against the City of Santa Monica and Bayside District Corp., organizers of the Santa Monica Farmers’ market, alleging that the crash could have been prevented by the installation of metal barriers. Attorney Geoff Wells, representing victims- relatives, stated that the defendants failed to take any reasonable steps to provide protection for the patrons at the farmer’s market.” In 2008, the City of Santa Monica had thus far paid out $21 million to settle dozens of civil lawsuits stemming from the case.
- Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson said he agreed completely with the jury and called Weller’s actions callous and showing “an enormous indifference to human life.”
George Russell Weller was convicted Oct. 20 of 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence
- The judge noted that Weller had enough control of his vehicle to avoid cars and trucks within the farmers market.
“Mr. Weller chose to steer into the people, plowing into the crowd and literally launching bodies into the air as his car sped 2½ blocks,” the judge said. He also called Weller’s apologies hollow.
- As Weller was too ill with heart disease, confined to bed and did not attend the proceeding the Judge said he wanted to be practical and save the taxpayers money, knowing that prison would kill Mr. Weller.
- Weller, almost 90 years old, was placed on five years’ felony probation and ordered to pay $90,000-100,000 in penalties, including fines and restitution to two families with others still in process.
Below is an excerpt of his police interview. As a former food broker, it is incredulous to me that he appeared more concerned that the people he killed and injured did not get the value for their purchases versus the loss of life. What?? And he didn’t just contribute to it, he caused it!
George Weller’s words
“But, God almighty, those poor people. Poor, poor, tragic people. I had, I have the feeling that they were just down there for the value of the thing in the first place because the prices were good. And what a tragic ending to their outing, and I contributed to it, which is just almost more than I can figure out.”
On September 26, 2006 the jurors heard Weller describe the last time he renewed his California driving license. He told police that he took a written test but wasn’t required to show that he could drive safely.
“I passed the written test, high enough to where they didn’t ask me to take a drive, particularly at my age,” “I lucked out,” Weller said on the tape.”
On December 9, 2010, George Russell Weller died only 2 days after his 94th birthday.
The number of Americans over the age of 70 is set to explode in coming years from 28.5 million in 2011 rising to 52.7 million in 2030, according to the U.S. Census.
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