John Wesley Patrick Vs. Caltrans


    Peter Felchlin, in a three-week jury trial, obtained a defense verdict for the State of California, Department of Transportation.

    On February 7, 2010, plaintiffs John Wesley Patrick and Joseph Matyasik were southbound on Interstate 15 near the Jurupa Street exit when a 55-pound steel plate crashed into the roof of their Ford Explorer, shattering the windshield. The plate entered the passenger compartment, struck both plaintiffs, and eventually came to rest on the floor in front of the passenger seat. The metal plate was engraved "Caltrans-Streetlighting." The accident occurred adjacent to a freeway widening construction project. Plaintiff Matyasik sustained facial lacerations, a severe bruise to his left knee and soft tissue injuries. Plaintiff Patrick sustained bruising to his right chest wall and right knee. Both plaintiffs claimed the need for future knee surgery.

    Plaintiffs sought to establish liability on the part of Caltrans based on the fact that the plate had Caltrans name on it and that the accident occurred adjacent to a Caltrans construction site. They contended that the circumstantial evidence was such that it was more likely than not that the plate fell off a Caltrans vehicle.

    Peter Felchlin defended the case on behalf of Caltrans. The day of the accident was Super Bowl Sunday. The accident occurred at approximately 3:30 p.m. Peter Felchlin was able to show the jury that a small pothole repair crew had worked earlier that day, but computer records showed they had finished their shift at 2:00 p.m. Further, computer records showed that work on the construction site proper was not being conducted at the time of the incident, and that construction crews did not return to the construction site until approximately 10:00 p.m., some 6 1/2 hours after the subject accident. The investigating California Highway Patrol officer traveled up and down the roadway following the incident to see if he could locate any Caltrans employees. He was completely unsuccessful in doing so.

    Mr. Felchlin successfully argued to the jury that the metal plate could have come from anywhere. Such plates can be found along highways throughout Southern California. Moreover, the plates serve as covers to junction boxes containing copper wiring, and are often removed by thieves to obtain access to the copper wiring. This particular plate had been modified by the removal of reinforcing steel rebar and electrical ground lugs, making it unusable on public highways. The jury agreed with Caltrans argument and rendered a 9-3 defense verdict after 3 1/2 hours of deliberation.

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