A 63-year-old woman won a $105,000 verdict against the City of Santa Barbara in a sidewalk trip-and-fall case after testifying from her hospice bed, where she’s now dying of cancer. If that wasn’t dramatic enough, jurors also heard a former city employee in charge of sidewalk repairs, Rick Fulmer, testify that faulty sidewalks are only repaired after complaints and that the city had no systematic approach to such problems.
At issue for the jurors was whether a threat was posed by the sidewalk uplift — measuring one and three-eighths of an inch — on Mason Street near where Patricia Dzukola had caught her bus to work for 24 years. Although Dzukola had walked that stretch thousands of times, on April 10, 2015, distracted by a loud noise, she tripped and fell, fracturing both wrists. Surgery was required. A majority of jurors initially doubted whether so slight an uplift could be considered dangerous, but jury foreman Jerry Compton, a retired Delco employee, persuaded them otherwise. That was key to the outcome of the trial.
“I looked at the picture — it didn’t look that dangerous,” Compton said. “But when you trip on it, it’s probably dangerous.” While Dzukola’s hospice-bed testimony was emotionally searing, it was Fulmer’s testimony — that he’d been met with silence the three times he suggested to his superiors a more proactive approach to sidewalk repairs — that sealed the deal. After the verdict, Fulmer’s replacement, Jim Dewey, dismissed his predecessor as a disgruntled former employee and his charges as “ridiculous.” The city has 400 miles of sidewalks to maintain, Dewey said; last year, it made 743 repairs, far more than the number of complaints — 66 — filed. With last year’s passage of Measure C — a road and infrastructure repair bond — Dewey said the amount of money for sidewalk repairs would jump from $250,000 a year to $1 million.
Dzukola was represented by attorney John Richards, who said the verdict was to cover costs of medical treatment and lost wages. “To me, it’s not a lot of money, but it’s a very big case,” he said. “This was needless.”