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Expert: Dangerous condition existed prior to fall

January 17, 2002|By RUDY YNIGUEZ, Staff Writer

A safety expert spent the day on the witness stand Wednesday as testimony continued in the case of an El Centro woman who tripped, fell and injured herself while on her way to a meeting at the Imperial Irrigation District's auditorium in El Centro.

Carl Andre Beels testified for Carmen Hamrick, who is suing IID. He said he is an expert in walking surface safety.

The bottom line for Beels is that according to the data he introduced as evidence, curbs lower than 6 inches are inherently dangerous. Some of the data he presented states falls cause more injuries to Californians than any other type of accidents, that falls are the third-largest cause of death in the United States from unintentional injuries, that falls are the single-largest cause of accidental death among those 65 or older in California and falls result in one in three accidental deaths of persons over age 65 in California.

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"Actually there's a lot of reasons why the elderly have a lot of falls," Beels said.

Hamrick is 75.

He enumerated the dollar costs of such falls, including that in 1996-97, the cost of all falls in California was more than $6 billion.

Beels explained his conclusions about Hamrick's fall, including:

· that a dangerous condition existed due to the low visual contrast between the vertical and horizontal surfaces of the curb, that other entrances are serviced by flush entries and not curbs and that with the volume of people using the auditorium it was only a matter of when there would be an accident. He alleged Hamrick was acting in a safe manner using ordinary care in that she was walking not running and looking forward "generally."

· that the area was not open and obvious in that the small elevation change of the 3-inch curb is not conspicuous, that characteristics surrounding the facility are that entrances are flush, that looking at the area peripherally seems to indicate there is a ramp and not a curb, that the curb was not consistent with Hamrick's expectation of a flush surface transition from parking lot to facility as she had found elsewhere and that lighting conditions were consistent with dusk.

(Beels told the jury the photographs introduced by the plaintiff do not accurately reflect the way the area looks. The jury members, however, was ordered by the judge to not visit the area themselves, and that they had to depend on the evidence introduced in the courtroom.)

"I'm not testifying the change in elevation could not be seen," Beels said, adding that other people could have blocked Hamrick's view of the curb and that Hamrick might not have been paying attention, including the fact that people were rising in height as they stepped up to the sidewalk.

· the mechanics of falling.

· that IID "knew or should have known" that the curb was a trip hazard.

· that alternative configurations could have been used at the site, including painting the curb to help increase one's perception of it or put in a ramp.

Contrary to what Hamrick's attorney, Lowell Sutherland of El Centro, told the jury in his opening remarks, Beels did not testify that painting the curb "ensures the pedestrian will see the curb."

Beels said Hamrick's high heels made no difference in her fall. He then testified that 6-inch curbs are standard height throughout the state, and the plaintiff introduced El Centro Public Works Department engineering drawings showing curbs of 6 inches.

Under cross-examination, and through the use of numerous photographs of local businesses and parking lots, including the post office, a credit union, and an insurance office, Beels conceded there are curbs under 6 inches in El Centro.

"Most definitely, none of those are close to 6 inches," he said.

Beels said he is not aware of any legal requirement or building requirement that curbs in parking lots on private property be 6 inches in height.

IID attorney Frank Oswalt made Beels concede that the lighting conditions at the time Hamrick fell were not dusk and that using Beels' own light measurements, there was 17 times more light than necessary for her to see the curb.

Beels also testified he holds no general licenses related to safety and the majority of the cases he's testified for have been for those of people stepping down from a curb, not upward.

Several inconsistencies in Beels' testimony and deposition were brought out.

Beels said his conclusions included "inferences" based on what he was told about the case. Beels also said 6-inch curbs are not necessarily appropriate in parking lots as they are where sidewalks meet streets via gutters. He also said he does not know the purpose behind the 6-inch height of curbs.

Oswalt showed Beels a photograph of the auditorium entrance and asked if a curb running the length of some plants would not lead people to see the curb.

Beels said the plants would tend to act as a funnel but they would not necessarily help one to see the curb more easily. He conceded he did not factor in the color of the plants and that contrast into his study of the site and how they might have affected Hamrick.

Testimony today will center on Hamrick's medical condition.

The testimony of experts interrupted Oswalt's cross-examination of Hamrick and it is unknown when it will resume.

>>Staff Writer Rudy Yniguez can be reached at 337-3440.

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