On a clear Monday evening two and a half years ago, Rosalina Dionisio’s car broke down on Highway 50 in West Sacramento. She steered toward the shoulder. But the shoulder wasn’t entirely there.
Overgrown oleander bushes covered almost all of the 8-foot-wide safety zone next to the traffic lanes. When Dionisio pulled to a stop, up against the bushes, the vehicle was sitting partway in the right travel lane.
The crash that happened minutes later left the south Sacramento County resident, now 64, in a wheelchair, possibly for life. It left another driver with deep regret. Last month, after more than a year of legal jockeying, the state agreed to pay Dionisio and her husband $9.75 million.
Despite the settlement, Caltrans still contends it is not to blame for the crash. In court filings, the agency’s lawyers say Dionisio could have found a better place to pull over, where there was less oleander, and that the man who hit her should have been paying better attention.
But along Highway 50 in the spot where Dionisio was hit, Caltrans crews have made a point, since the crash, of keeping the oleander back, opening the entire shoulder and several feet of dirt beyond as a safe haven.
Dionisio’s attorney, Roger Dreyer, said the state failed to fulfill its duty to maintain the roadside in a safe condition for drivers. He said the hefty settlement sends a message that will keep other drivers safe.
“What is the message they will carry back to their crews?” he said. “‘We have to do our jobs.’”
Caltrans representatives declined to discuss the accident, instead issuing a statement to The Bee: “This case involved a tragic set of circumstances and Caltrans deeply regrets that this incident occurred. We thought it was in (the) best interest of all involved to forgo a lengthy trial and settle this suit. We hope this award will give Mrs. Dionisio and her family some closure and the care she needs.”
Martin Wachs, former director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Berkeley, said he was not familiar with the incident but that it was possible that pruning in the crash area may have been postponed because of a lack of money or administrative failure. Still, he said, Caltrans does have a good reputation for doing maintenance with limited funds. “Maintenance is among the best things Caltrans does,” Wachs said.
Jim Earp, a member of the California Transportation Commission, the panel that helps fund Caltrans, said he can’t speak to why this crash happened but that transportation funding is an issue. The state has a significant maintenance backlog.
“Everything is straining the seams,” Earp said. “Bad things are going to happen.”
But Dionisio’s attorney dismissed any suggestion that the California Department of Transportation couldn’t afford to prune the bushes. “They got lazy,” Dreyer said.
A life altered
The crash happened just before 6 p.m. on a Monday in August 2012. Dionisio, a clerical worker at the U.S. Postal Service, was heading home eastbound when her car made a noise, vibrated and lost power. She testified later that she steered her 1990 BMW as far to the right as she could and came to a stop between the Harbor Boulevard on-ramp and the Jefferson Boulevard exit.
“I noticed the bushes were on top of my hood,” she said later in a deposition. “I can’t move (the car) anymore, because it stopped. No more power.”
She called a tow company and her husband, then sat with her seat belt on and waited. She said she thought she turned on her hazard lights, but witnesses said they didn’t see the lights blinking, which could have been the case if her car had lost electrical power.
A few hundred yards behind her, Stephen Taylor, a West Sacramento resident at the time, drove onto the freeway. Taylor, then a 30-year-old bank employee, had gone to get a Quiznos sandwich for his wife, who was at home pregnant with their first child. Quiznos was closed, so he headed home.
Nine minutes after Dionisio stopped, Taylor slammed into her car, propelling it 60 feet. Taylor’s car, a 2008 BMW, rolled over twice. Taylor was uninjured. But Dionisio’s body was crushed. The first hospital report on her condition, cited in the California Highway Patrol log: “Per UC Med Center: Patient is extremely critical.”
Today, Dionisio rarely leaves her house. She has metal rods in her back. Her voice is low and halting from damaged vocal cords. She can lift her right arm to just above shoulder height. The left arm and hand are held at her side in plastic braces so that they won’t curl in atrophy.
Although Caltrans officials have expressed sympathy for Dionisio, court records show the agency’s attorneys were prepared to make the case to a jury that the oleander didn’t cause the crash. In court filings, they acknowledged overgrowth, but point out the sight lines on that section of freeway were lengthy, and there had been no reported oleander-related crashes there in the previous decade.
“This location is not a dangerous condition of public property,” they wrote, and “does not pose a substantial risk of injury when used with due care.”
The state planted flowering oleander bushes in rows decades ago along many Central Valley freeways. The towering plants serve in places as a sound wall and safety device, blocking oncoming headlights and reducing distractions. Oleander grows fast, though, and billows outward if not pruned.
Caltrans contended that Dionisio could have chosen a better spot to pull over. “There was adequate shoulder for Mrs. Dionisio to get off the road notwithstanding the oleander overgrowth,” the agency’s lawyers wrote in court filings.
Caltrans mainly pointed a finger at Taylor. “It was inattentive driving on Mr. Taylor’s part that caused this accident,” state attorneys wrote. “He could have easily avoided impacting Ms. Dionisio’s vehicle had he been attentive.”
The state took videos of passing commute-hour traffic at the crash site later, and concluded that several dozen drivers may have safely maneuvered around Dionisio’s car before Taylor’s arrival. Witnesses in a car behind Taylor said in depositions that they noticed from a distance that Dionisio’s car was parked partly in the travel lane.
Taylor’s attorney, Bradley Thomas of Davis, said the oleander overgrowth did nevertheless cause his client to misread the scene ahead. “The illusion (created) by the overgrown bushes left him with the impression that she was actually stopped on the shoulder, not in his lane. By the time he realized that wasn’t the case it was too late for him to stop.”
Taylor was not on his cellphone and had not been texting, his attorney said. Taylor’s insurance company paid $100,000 to the Dionisios, the maximum amount for his coverage. “He feels horrible about what happened,” Thomas said.
Overgrowth trimmed back
The Dionisios hired a heavyweight attorney, Dreyer, of Dreyer Babich Buccola Wood Campora in Sacramento, with a track record of multimillion-dollar victories, including a $16.6 million verdict in the water-intoxication death of Jennifer Strange after she participated in a radio station’s water-drinking contest.
Dreyer deposed a Caltrans landscape supervisor who said he reported to his supervisors long before the crash that the oleander was growing over the shoulder. Dreyer also produced Caltrans’ photos of the freeway, taken annually for years, that suggest the oleander had been overgrown for at least a few years.
“They are not supposed to allow dangerous conditions to exist,” he said. “That is what we pay them to do. We rely on the state to do their job. The state had notice of this problem. They just ignored it. They put all the participants that day in a dangerous circumstance.”
Today, the oleander bushes there are trimmed back beyond the shoulder, at some points 12 or more feet from the travel lane. That appears to follow recommendations printed in the vegetation control chapter of the Caltrans maintenance manual, which instructs crews to consider keeping vegetation several feet from the shoulder: “A control strip up to eight (8) feet wide for maintenance along the paved shoulder edge of both two-lane and multi-lane roadways should be considered.”
Caltrans declined comment about its vegetation management practices and priorities, and whether those practices changed after the crash. A spokesman sent The Sacramento Bee a short statement: “Safety is our top priority and when possible, we strive to keep our paved shoulders available for use by disabled vehicles.”
The state highway department spent $74 million in 2012-13 on maintenance of landscaped property, $22 million on nonlandscaped weed control, and $63 million on litter and debris removal, according to a Caltrans publication.
Today, new highways are built with 10-foot-wide shoulders. Highway 50 through West Sacramento was built decades ago, when the standard was 8 feet, a Caltrans spokesman said.
Dreyer said the settlement will allow Dionisio to receive long-term medical treatment and physical therapy. Her medical bills, according to court documents, have topped $2 million.
In a brief conversation last week, Dionisio said she remembers the moments just before the crash. She pulled over as far as she could. She was scared. She heard cars whooshing by. But she doesn’t remember the impact. She woke in the hospital three weeks after the crash. By then, she had undergone several surgeries. She spent four months in the hospital.
She described a life of extreme limitations. She used to take care of her family; now they take care of her. The family has a van that accommodates her wheelchair, but she no longer goes to church, to San Francisco Giants games or to visit family. She said she is sad.
“I don’t like people looking at me,” she said. “You know, especially on a wheelchair.”
Call The Bee’s Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059.