Federal Transit Administration data reveal that mile for mile, cable cars get in the most accidents and cause the most injuries of any form of public transportation in the country.
In April 2009, Minami Tamaki LLP senior counsel B. Mark Fong settled a wrongful death case for $500,000 brought by the children of Joyce Wong Lam, a 76-year-old retired seamstress who was killed by a cable car in January 2006 as she walked across the street near her home in North Beach.
Like many seniors, Lam had diminished sight and hearing. Before crossing, she looked both ways, saw no vehicles approaching, and began to cross the street in the crosswalk. But since Mason Street is on a hill at this intersection, pedestrians cannot see vehicles coming up the hill, because they are below the crest.
Eyewitnesses aboard the cable car observed Lam walking slowly, looking down at the cable car tracks, obviously unaware of the cable car as it approached. The witnesses screamed at the gripman to stop, but the cable car struck Lam.
At his deposition, the gripman testified he knew many seniors lived in this neighborhood. He was trained to follow the “Smith System Five Keys of Defensive Driving,” which, among other things, required him to keep a lookout for potential obstacles a block ahead of him and be prepared to stop short of them. He was trained to expect pedestrians to be careless and do the wrong thing, and to anticipate the need to stop to avoid hitting them. Despite his training, he claimed not to have seen Lam at any time before he hit her.
Plaintiffs relied on the legal doctrine “to look is to see,” which is that when the operator of a vehicle fails to see that which is clearly visible and would have been seen by one exercising ordinary care, and a collision occurs as a result, he is negligent as a matter of law.
Lam was the matriarch of a family of five children, one of whom is a sitting San Francisco Superior Court judge. As a result of publicity from this case and pressure from the community, stop signals have been installed on all four corners of the intersection where Lam was struck.