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Lawyers Tussle as Blue Bus Victim Watches

By Ann Williams
Staff Writer

February 24 -- The jury got a look Thursday at the man allegedly run over by a Big Blue Bus two years ago, as Santa Monica’s most high-powered lawyers matched wits in a West Los Angeles courtroom over a controversial computer animation depicting the accident.

Haroun Mehdipour, 81, sat in a rear corner seat in the gallery, drooping to the left, the side where his arm had been amputated after an accident that his counsel claims left him brain damaged.

A gently smiling gray-haired man, Mehdipour nodded as his daughter Nanaz Hekmatravan adjusted an ergonomic pillow loaned by the judge’s clerk to make him more comfortable. His wife, Parvin, sniffled back tears as she murmured to him.

Mehdipour had been brought in to show the jury how the length of the degloving injury to his forearm matched the width of a bus tire wheeled in as evidence.

The jury strained silently forward to watch as he hobbled forward on a cane, held up by Hekmatravan. He stumbled as he stepped from the tile floor to a rug and was startled when a door shut behind him.

His daughter helped him lift his arm and hold it against the tread of the bus tire, and then against the tread of a car tire. Attorneys for the City of Santa Monica contend that it’s unclear what kind of vehicle caused Mehdipour’s injury.

Mehdipour is being represented by Browne Greene, whose firm has won the highest product liability verdict in history when six burn victims received $4.9 billion from GM in 1999 after the car they were in burst into flames.

The firm also is representing plaintiffs in the farmer's market tragedy that left ten dead and more than 60 injured when an elderly driver plowed through the City-sponsored market nearly three years ago.

Greene -- who was brought into the case by the Beverly Hills firm of Azizzadeh and Ross -- showed the jury a videotaped deposition by his key eyewitness, Carlos Fernandez Ramirez, as well as a computer animated recreation of the plaintiff’s version of the accident.

According to the videotaped testimony, Mehdipour was walking east on the southwest corner of Barrington Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard next to a stopped Big Blue Bus when Ramirez, who was crossing the street westbound, first saw him.

Ramirez said that he watched Mehdipour try to get the bus driver’s attention by touching the side of the bus and calling out.

As Mehdipour got to the front door, Ramirez said he saw the bus driver look to the left into traffic, close the door and drive away. Mehdipour fell down and Ramirez said he saw the right rear tire run over Mehdipour’s left arm.

Ramirez ran to lift Mehdipour up, but changed his mind when he saw his “mouth was full of blood.” He described Mehdipour’s left arm as “white, white, white,” and said his hand was “all mashed, all torn up.”

The multiracial jury watched the video intently, scowling in concentration. The young judge, John L. Segal, was animated and alert during the proceedings, seeming to enjoy watching Greene at work.

But Greene’s version of the accident didn’t go unchallenged.

As attorneys for the City of Santa Monica protested items of evidence and cross-examined Greene’s expert witness, outlines of their case emerged.

Attorney Lance Gams’ team was particularly set against an animation of the accident prepared by Greene’s expert witness, biomedical engineer Dr. Anthony Sances, Jr.

Sances said it was made with 3D Studio software – “what Hollywood uses” – and was an approximation of what he could deduce from statements, depositions, photos, his own examinations of the buses and medical records.

Before it was shown, defense lawyers argued that the animation recreates the accident “so specifically…it’s going to be too hard for them to get it out of their mind.”

“I see, that’s what happened,” will be the jury’s reaction, they argued, damaging the City’s case because the animation is based on the plaintiff’s version of the accident.

But Judge Segal, although openly angry that he hadn’t been told about the animation before, decided that it wasn’t substantially different from drawings, models or demonstrative actions by witnesses. He likened it to a “flip book” made of many drawings, which in themselves are admissible.

It was then up to the defense to shred the animation once it had been shown to the jury.

Gams pointed out the inconsistencies between the animation and the report filed by the emergency medical crew at the accident. Sances’ movie showed the body winding up in the crosswalk, while Gams said the EMS record showed it 20 feet west of the curb line.

Sances didn’t take differing accounts of the accident into consideration, including details Ramirez gave to Detective Fisher of the Los Angeles Police Department in a statement he made months after the accident that were inconsistent with his deposition, Gams said.

According to Fisher’s statement, Ramirez said the bus pulled away when Mehdipour was at the middle of the bus, not the front door, and that he continued to pound on it after the bus was in motion, Gams said.

Fisher also reported that Ramirez said Mehdipour “stepped on the edge of the curb causing him to fall.”

Gams referred to a second-hand statement by a man who said Ramirez told him he’d seen Mehdipour get his arm stuck in the bus door as he was getting off the bus. In his deposition, Ramirez denied having said that.

And another witness, who didn’t see the accident itself, said that she’d seen a Big Blue Bus stopped at the bus stop and a body lying bleeding in the gutter, Gams said.

Gams wanted to know why Sances didn’t account for those versions in his movie.

He also wanted to know why Sances had left benches, garbage cans and people out of the animation, and why he’d shown the light turning yellow as the bus pulled away.

Sances said extra details like the benches would “just clutter up the animation,” and the light was of “no relevance, I didn’t think that was an issue at all.”

After hours of viewing photos of buses and more graphic photos of Mehdipour’s injuries and listening to detailed accounts of what happens to flesh when it is ripped off a bone by a bus tire, the jury’s attention was finally beginning to wane when the judge called a halt to the day’s testimony.

The trial will resume Monday in Department C at the Los Angeles Superior Court on Purdue Avenue in West Los Angeles.

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