Last Tuesday, Judge Thomas Anderle ruled that a lawsuit filed over the death of UCSB student Sierra Markee-Winkler can proceed. Siobhan Markee and Lon Winkler initiated the lawsuit in May 2015 after their daughter fell to her death from the cliffs of Sea Lookout Park in Isla Vista on the evening of May 4, 2014.
According to interviews conducted by the Sherriff’s Office, Markee-Winkler had been drinking and partying throughout the afternoon and evening at the music and arts festival Chilla Vista. At around 1:30 a.m., Markee-Winkler got into an argument with one of her roommates and ran towards the 6800 block of Del Playa Drive to calm down. She then borrowed a nearby woman’s phone to call her friend to tell her that she was at Sea Lookout Park and that she was okay. The next morning, a bicyclist found Markee-Winkler’s body on the beach below the park.
Markee-Winkler’s parents are suing the County of Santa Barbara, Isla Vista Recreation and Park District, the Regents of the University of California, the State of California, and the California Coastal Commission for not ensuring the safety of the park they controlled where their daughter fell. They argue that there were no tall barriers preventing people from walking to the cliff’s edge, warning signs were not noticeable, and there was no lighting in the area at night. Furthermore, the county made significant changes to the park in the early 1980s by importing sand to make it more beach-like, which Markee and Winkler argue has contributed to cliff erosion.
The judge’s ruling pertained to a motion made by the defendants who argued the plaintiffs’ claims were not substantial enough to warrant a trial. They claimed there was little evidence of Markee-Winkler falling from Sea Lookout Park. If she did fall from there, they argued, the risk was obvious and they were not responsible for the park’s natural conditions and hazards.
Judge Anderle remained unconvinced of these arguments. He pointed to evidence that appeared to show Markee-Winkler fell from Sea Lookout Park and he suggested the park might not be considered natural, as the County of Santa Barbara had overseen significant changes to it. In fact, Deputy Sherriff Tami Lewis testified that the bluffs from which Sierra fell had been disturbed, and there has been conflicting testimony as to whether the changes the county made contributed to the stability of the area.
Judge Anderle subsequently denied the defendants’ motion for a summary judgment, which would have ended the case without a trial, and has ordered both parties to participate in mediation. According to Markee and Winkler’s lead attorney Mindy Bish, there will be a trial if the mediation does not result in an agreement.
Since 2010, 32 people have fallen from the Isla Vista cliffs with ten occurring after Markee-Winkler’s death. Responding to complaints from parents, students, faculty, and Isla Vista residents, UC Santa Barbara funded a $70,000 Community Fence Project in 2015 to erect fencing and larger warning signs along the county-owned bluffs. Bish believes these changes were long overdue. “Had [the fences] been there from the beginning, we may not be here in this case. … Sierra was not the first child to die off of those cliffs. Hopefully she will be the last.”