Is a solitary eucalyptus tree standing alongside Highway 99 through Madera County an example of deadly negligence by the state of California?
One attorney says it is.
Los Angeles attorney Timothy A. Loranger is suing on behalf of two siblings whose parents died in a fiery Highway 99 crash in Madera last year that killed three people. He cited a study that called Highway 99 the deadliest highway in America and said the California Department of Transportation should have removed the tree or protected travelers from its dangers.
Loranger represents Kira and Devon Sandiford of Southern California. Their parents, Elise and Robert Sandiford, were killed in the May 25, 2016, crash on Highway 99 near Avenue 16. The driver of a tractor trailer rig, Chavon Abrams, also was killed.
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If the tree hadn’t been there, there would not have been an explosion, the Sandifords would have walked away unharmed.
Los Angeles attorney Timothy A. Loranger, who represents the couple’s children
According to the California Highway Patrol, the Sandifords were traveling north in an RV on Highway 99 when it went from the left lane to the right lane and clipped Abrams’ Freightliner around 10 p.m. Both vehicles left the roadway, ran into a eucalyptus tree and burst into flames. The Sandifords and Abrams died at the scene.
Loranger, who filed the lawsuit on June 8 in Madera County Superior Court, contends the death of the couple was caused by a dangerous condition of public property – the tree – and accuses the State of California of negligence. The lawsuit asks for unspecified damages for the couple’s two children.
Loranger said the California Department of Transportation is liable because the tree put all motorists at risk. The tree is about 20 feet from the roadway and is still there today, Loranger said Monday.
Typically, if a motorists senses trouble, their first instinct is to pull over on the shoulder of the road. Loranger contends hat the State of California failed to incorporate “a clear recovery zone,” or a roadside barrier, and/or other protective devices that would prevent vehicles from colliding with the large tree. This lack of protective devices or roadside barriers created “an inherently dangerous condition of public property,” he said.
“The tree caused the truck to explode,” Loranger said. “If the tree hadn’t been there, there would not have been an explosion, and the Sandifords would have walked away unharmed.”
Elise and Robert Sandiford, were killed May 25, 2016 in a fiery crash on Highway 99 near Avenue 16. The driver of a tractor trailer rig, Chavon Abrams also was killed.
Loranger said the collision also was foreseeable to the Department of Transportation, known as Caltrans, yet the defendant failed to warn or adequately warn drivers of the dangerous condition. In addition, Loranger alleges Caltrans has had sufficient time to take measures to protect the public from the tree, but hasn’t done so.
“Despite Highway 99’s well-documented high fatality rate, California and its Department of Transportation continue to bury its head in the sand by failing to make this critical stretch of Highway 99 safer for motorists,” Loranger said. “How many more tragedies will we have to see before the State decides to act?”
Caltrans spokeswoman Tami Cox said Monday that the agency is aware of the lawsuit, but couldn’t comment because it’s pending litigation.
The high death rate on Highway 99 caught the attention of Rick Farinelli, who was Madera County supervisor when the fiery collision happened. In a letter sent to state lawmakers a day after the Sandifords were killed, Farinelli wrote of a desperate need for California to spend money on infrastructure projects, most notably on Highway 99 that runs through Madera County.
“This is now a perfect storm as the State struggles to figure out how to pay for its crumbling road infrastructure,” the letter says. “This is an appeal to a State government who has neglected some of its poorest regions and now pretends to be a victim of its own poor mismanagement.”
“This isn’t just about inconvenience, or reduced efficiency – people are dying because of the state of our highways,” the letter says. “We must act.”’
This isn’t just about inconvenience, or reduced efficiency – people are dying because of the state of our highways. We must act.
Former Madera County Supervisor Rick Farinelli
Married in July, 1979, Elise and Robert Sandiford were known for giving their time and money to several charities, including Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, National Multiple Sclerosis Society, American Red Cross, and March of Dimes, Loranger said.
Robert Sandiford spent over three decades working as a technology technician with the city of Los Angeles before retiring. Elise Sandiford was guidance counselor at the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies and had been a board member with the Greater Los Angeles Council on Deafness (GLAD) and Southern California Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.
Loranger said the couple had recently retired and were on vacation when they were killed.