By Dave Boyce
Almanac Staff Writer
Anthony Rose, a former superintendent of the Portola Valley School District, was not at fault when his car struck and killed bicyclist Rodney Smith in a May 2007 accident on Sand Hill Road, a San Mateo County jury decided Dec. 1.
Mr. Smith was a resident of Portola Valley and the former chief executive of San Jose-based Altera Corp.
His widow, Mary Smith, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Mr. Rose, a resident of Woodside, seeking $7 million to $8 million in damages.
The jury, which deliberated 10 hours following a 10-day trial, voted 9-3 to reject her claim.
The key issue was whether Mr. Smith, 67, turned his eastbound bike into the path of Mr. Rose’s eastbound car, or whether Mr. Rose, 87, turned his car into the bike lane and struck Mr. Smith.
Making a case
The accident damaged the front fork of Mr. Smith’s bike, and left his left leg slightly injured, said Mr. Rose’s attorney, Kevin Cholakian of Cholakian & Associates in South San Francisco.
Such evidence, and the habits of typical drivers, supports the notion that Mr. Smith turned his bike into the path of Mr. Rose’s car, Mr. Cholakian told The Almanac.
A typical lane change requires a 1-degree to 2-degree turn of the steering wheel, he said. The accident reconstruction showed that Mr. Rose would have had to make something like a 15-degree right turn into the bike lane to produce the same damage and injuries, the attorney said.
At Mr. Rose’s reported speed of 35 mph, he added, such a turn would have driven the car into the embankment in less than a second. The police report did not have Mr. Rose hitting the embankment.
Mr. Rose had also recently passed written and behind-the-wheel tests of his driving, Mr. Cholakian said.
Both men had bad vision in their left eyes, Mr. Cholakian said, and Mr. Smith would thus have been at a disadvantage in looking over his left shoulder.
The California Highway Patrol, which investigated the accident, did not charge Mr. Rose with wrongdoing.
Superior Court Judge Carol Mittlesteadt, one of two “complex litigation” judges in the county system, presided over the trial, held in San Mateo.
The fight may not be over.
“We’re obviously disappointed with the decision and we retain our right to appeal,” said Ms. Smith’s attorney, John Kristensen of O’Reilly Collins in San Mateo. “It was a close decision. It was a tough case.”
An appeal would focus on whether it was appropriate for the judge to admit evidence as to whether Mr. Smith had a habit of turning his bike around near where the accident occurred, Mr. Kristensen said.
Ms. Smith had told a California Highway Patrol officer that, when riding as a couple, they often did turn near the site of accident, according to the police report.
The trial unfolded in a courtroom designed to accommodate technical presentations. This case revolved around the specific damage to the car and bike, Mr. Cholakian said. His defense included a reconstruction of the accident using the identical car and bicycle.
The defense offered to settle before the trial, but Ms. Smith refused, said Mr. Cholakian, who will seek to recover the costs of hiring expert witnesses. The costs “are dramatic,” he said.