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San Diego faces possible lawsuit over death of pedestrian hit by car on Torrey Pines Road in La Jolla

Pedestrian-activated crosswalk in the 2500 block of Torrey Pines Road
The efficacy of this pedestrian-activated crosswalk in the 2500 block of Torrey Pines Road has been questioned since it was installed in 2018.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

The attorney for the widow of Howard Wilson, 70, alleges ‘dangerous conditions’ at the crosswalk where Wilson was hit in February.

Following the death of a pedestrian who was hit by a car on Torrey Pines Road earlier this year, the city of San Diego is facing a possible lawsuit alleging that it allowed unsafe conditions there.

The attorney representing the widow of Howard Wilson, 70, said a claim (a precursor to a possible lawsuit) was filed with the city in July and that officials had 45 days to respond (which can mean offering a settlement). The 45 days expired this month.

Thus, the attorney, Cynthia Chihak of San Diego-based Chihak & Associates, said a suit will be filed in October claiming that the crosswalk where Wilson was hit poses “dangerous conditions on public property with defective lighting, and the crosswalk they placed is not adequate in that it gives the pedestrian a false sense of security.”

Wilson was walking south across the 2500 block of Torrey Pines Road a little east of La Jolla Parkway at around 6 p.m. Feb. 14 when he was hit by a Toyota Camry heading east up Torrey Pines in the right lane, San Diego police said at the time. Wilson was taken to a hospital, where he died.

The crosswalk there has blinking lights activated by pedestrians who want to cross.

Chihak said Wilson was the caregiver for her client, Howard’s widow, Shirley Wilson, and she is seeking financial damages and compensation for “loss of love, care and comfort.”

Chihak said her client is wheelchair-bound and was “totally dependent” on Howard Wilson.

“Shirley was in the [La Jolla Nursing and Rehabilitation Center on Torrey Pines Road, near the crosswalk] because she was falling, but she was supposed to go home the next day,” Chihak said. “He was her care, and after he died, she lost their home and now she is living in a facility in Vista so they can assist her. But that is costing thousands a month she doesn’t have. So she’s talking about economic loss because she is paying for services that Howard once provided.”

Chihak said Howard was “all [Shirley] had and now she’s alone” and therefore she is seeking emotional damages as well.

Chihak said she hasn’t decided the amount she will ask for, but “it is in the seven figures.”

“The longer this goes on, the value of the lawsuit goes up because her expenses will have gotten higher,” Chihak said.

The city will have 30 days to respond once the suit is filed, she said. “I would hope, if the city was serious about accepting responsibility, we could resolve it in 2023, but I’m not sure,” Chihak said.

The office of City Councilman Joe LaCava, whose District 1 includes La Jolla, said he could not comment about pending litigation.

Since the crosswalk was installed in 2018, its efficacy has been called into question. At the time, some argued that the lights don’t stay on long enough for a person to cross safely (a midblock median with another activation button was installed since) and that the speed at which most drivers take that street from La Jolla Village Drive, coupled with the curve in the road, shortens the distance at which the crosswalk is visible.

Residents asked that the crosswalk be converted to a HAWK, or high-intensity activated crosswalk, beacon similar to that on Torrey Pines Road between Amalfi and Princess streets. That crosswalk has overhead traffic signals that remain dark and traffic is uninterrupted until a pedestrian indicates a desire to cross, at which time the lights progressively instruct traffic to stop.

A HAWK beacon is on Torrey Pines Road between Amalfi and Princess streets.
A HAWK beacon is on Torrey Pines Road between Amalfi and Princess streets. The lights above the crosswalk flash red and cars are required to stop when a pedestrian activates the signal.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

In June 2020, the La Jolla Traffic & Transportation Board voted to approve a HAWK beacon for the area, with then-T&T Chairman Dave Abrams citing complaints about a lack of safety.

According to minutes from that meeting, the board cautioned that failure to install the HAWK beacon “may expose the city to liability in the event of a future pedestrian accident.”

In March this year, following Howard Wilson’s death, a memo from LaCava to the San Diego Transportation Department echoed the request for a HAWK beacon. A possible timeline for that is unclear.

LaCava also asked that streetlights be installed at both ends of the crosswalk and that new “Ped x-ing” warning signs be painted on the street.

As an alternative to the HAWK beacon, LaCava suggested replacing the crosswalk signs with newer ones similar to those on La Jolla and Mission boulevards “that have more and larger lights on the signs.”

LaCava also noted that “currently, a pedestrian can only activate one set of flashing signs from the curb and must activate the other side upon reaching the pedestrian refuge in the median.”

LaCava told the La Jolla Light at the time that Wilson’s death was “calling our attention to improving the Torrey Pines Road midblock crosswalk. ... This effort is consistent with the citywide goal of zero traffic-related fatalities and severe injuries by 2025.” ◆