Jul 26, 2014

Family of 12-Year-Old Killed in Bike Accident Files Claim vs. City of Novato

Hailey Ratliff, 12, was killed Sept. 27 while riding her bike home from school. A family attorney says the city and driver were factors in her death.

Family of 12-Year-Old Killed in Bike Accident Files Claim vs. City of Novato Family of 12-Year-Old Killed in Bike Accident Files Claim vs. City of Novato

Hailey Ratliff's family is suing the city of Novato for "dangerous condition of public property," according to a claim shared by the Ratliff's attorney.

The claim, filed Tuesday by the San Francisco firm Matiasic Roth & Johnson, includes allegations that Novato residents had "widely decried the dangerous stretch of Novato Boulevard" where Hailey, a seventh-grader at Sinaloa Middle School, was struck by an SUV as she rode her bike home from school on Sept. 27. She died about 90 minutes later.

Jeffrey Walter, the city attorney for Novato, said he could not respond to the claim because it is pending litigation, and City Manager Michael Frank said the same. The city has a prescribed amount of time to reject it or investigate and resolve it, Walter said.

Attorney Paul Matiasic said the city could accept or deny the claim at anytime within 45 days, after which no action would be the same as denial, prompting a date in Marin County Superior Court. A jury would award a monetary settlement if it got to that point, he said.

The claim mentions that the city abdicated its responsibility to trim overgrowth of vegetation along that stretch of Novato Boulevard, obscuring speed limit signage and pedestrian crossings. There is no crosswalk in the 45 mph area where Hailey was struck.

Attorney Paul Matiasic said neighborhood residents and the Ratliffs raised concerns about the speeds achieved by motorists as they come into Novato from a rural area into the city limits near where the accident took place. He said the Dogbone Meadow dog park and a bike pathway on the south side of Novato Boulevard are frequently used by residents who live in the so-called Chase neighborhood on the north side of the street. Hailey was crossing from the south side of the road to the north side when she was struck.

The Ratliff family — Charles, Angela and their three young sons — recently relocated to Albuquerque, N.M., where they had lived until August of this year. Charles Ratliff brought the family to Novato when he took an administrative job at Journey Ford Lincoln.

Although Novato police concluded that the driver, Texas resident Samuel Lee Boulware Jr., was not at fault in the fatal incident, Matiasic said Boulware was speeding and inattentive behind the wheel. He said Boulware's negligence and the dangerous road conditions were "substantial factors in causing this collision."

"I found it surprising the way the details were characterized in the press and what information was released and what was not," Matiasic said. "By the police department's own calculations, the driver was in excess of the speed limit and in excess of the 85th percentile of motorists traveling on that stretch of the roadway."

Boulware was in the area working for Tait Communication and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. at the time of the collision, according to the claim.

Matiasic said the police report, which was not released to the media as per California vehicle code, had additional information that favors the family's stance.

"The facts will speak for themselves, but I think what's vitally important is that a complete portrait is painted for the public," he said. "There has really been a concerted effort to present limited information, and I think that's borne out of fear of what might happen to them down the line."

The Ratliffs told many friends and neighbors how much they appreciated the community support before they moved back to New Mexico. A candlelight vigil for Hailey drew several hundred people on the night after she died and fundraising efforts on behalf of the family continue. Thousands of dollars have been contributed to a memorial fund in Hailey's name.

"The citizens of Novato, including its children, deserve better," Matiasic said. "The Ratliff family has been genuinely touched by the outpouring of support from so many residents from Novato and greater Marin County to their hometown of Albuquerque and wishes to publicly acknowledge and express their most sincere gratitude for the same."

By filing the claim, the Ratliffs hope actions will be taken to avoid similar tragedies, Matiasic said. A committee of concerned residents, mostly from the Chase neighborhood, has formed since Hailey's death and is working on making the area safer for pedestrians and bicyclists.

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