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Ratliff Family 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.

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.

According to a story in the Marin Independent Journal, the Ratliffs have filed a wrongful death claim against Boulware as well.

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David Mc November 14, 2012 at 01:15 AM
How does the attorney know he was speeding and inattentive and the police didnt mention it. Darn attorneys know everything.
Christine Scioli November 14, 2012 at 01:17 AM
I live on San Marin Dr. People speed all the time, day and night. That does not mean this horrible tragedy is the fault of the city. i was crossing with my husband and daughter a few weeks back at San Ramon Way on the north side between the shopping center and Kaiser. A guy literally almost ran us over with his car. I think he was leaving the Kaiser parking lot and must have had something else on his mind. We are all so distracted and that's a problem, and young kids on bikes don't comprehend that nor the rules of the road, but it doesn't mean the city is at fault.
Anthony November 14, 2012 at 01:34 AM
It's a sue happy world I tell ya...
Danny Skarka November 14, 2012 at 01:45 AM
I do think the 45 MPH speed limit needs to be moved down the street past the housing development and the dog park. That should have been done when those sites were built. It was a sad event. I'm not sure how a lawyer is going to help anyone.
Vanessa Espinoza November 14, 2012 at 01:45 AM
When my son started riding his bike back and forth from school, he would be very agitated and upset after arriving home. He would call me frequently sharing with me his daily encounters of how stupid drivers were and trying to kill him. He was in the 5th grade. Yes, we spoke about his responsibility as a bike rider and the drivers' responsibility and he finally said, I'll just get in trouble for riding on the sidewalk. I supported his decision. We all are. Not as consciencious as we should be while driving. PERIOD!
Patty Maher November 14, 2012 at 01:46 AM
I'm really sorry to hear that.
Steve Pollock November 14, 2012 at 01:51 AM
Without casting blame, I was shocked to hear that stretch of Novato Blvd is 45MPH. I ride my bike through there all the time, on the road. Lots of folks are trying to cross to the dog park, there is a neighborhood, high school, etc. I cant imagine why it is 45... That entire area all the way to the dogpark should be 25MPH max and nothing beyond 45MPH the rest of the way to Petaluma rd.
Ken November 14, 2012 at 01:59 AM
While the loss of a child is a tragedy no parent should have to bear, it is a sad comment on our society that there is such a passion for blame. This was a very sad and unfortunate accident. Forcing the taxpayers of Novato to defend an expensive, meritless lawsuit only adds to the tragedy.
Brent Ainsworth (Editor) November 14, 2012 at 02:17 AM
At about 5:45 pm tonight, I added some more info to this story after getting the attorney on the phone. It's more thorough now, so please read the whole thing again.
Tom Benjamin November 14, 2012 at 02:27 AM
The simple fact is the speed limit for that stretch of road was set when it was a very rural area. It's much much to fast now with the Dog Park and subdivision now there. I've been guilty myself of not adjusting quick enough from the rapid transition from the rural Hwy speed to the sudden city environment. Just having San Marin HS on that corner should have been enough to slow the speed limit way down starting at least out by the Golf Course. It's a tragedy it took this girls death to hopefully get something done. Also I too would like to see the full Police Report. The whole truth in this matter should be made public.
Baxter November 14, 2012 at 02:27 AM
My heart still goes out to the Ratliff family for their loss. An innocent child made the wrong decision to cross a busy roadway without using the crosswalk at the intersection. Hailey's family and friends stated that she rode her bike on the south-west side of the road (against traffic) so that she could feed the horses. Obviously, instead of back-tracking to cross the road by using the cross-walk at the intersection, she rode her bike out into the roadway into an oncoming car. The police dept already found that Hailey did not yield to vehicular traffic. How many of us have jaywalked and made a mad dash across a road as a short-cut. I know I have and admit it is not safe. I don't believe the City of Novato is responsible for one's poor judgment. This was an unfortunate accident. I, for one, have always taught my children to use a cross-walk under all circumstances whether walking or riding bikes. even if it is inconvenient and means back tracking. Children need to be taught to always use the cross-walks and to ride their bikes on the correct side of the road. Although, this does not always guarantee an accident will not happen, it is a beneficial preventative. Since the Ratliff's lived directly adjacent to the roadway in question, I'm sure that they knew of the dangerous conditions of this roadway and educated their daughter about the risks while bike-riding, However, children don't always listen. My thoughts and prayers are with Hailey and her family. Be alert and be safe.
Charles Ratliff November 14, 2012 at 02:50 AM
Imagine if it was your child????? You can't!!!!!!!!!!!!! It was my daughter !!!!!!!!! So keep you comments to your self!!!!! Its so easy to make comments on things that don't effect the rest of your life.
Jason November 14, 2012 at 02:54 AM
It was an avoidable accident. 45mph is too fast for any city street where you have kids on bikes or pedestrians crossing. Kids need to be trained to be safe on the road too. Many countries actually have mandatory road safety training programs for school children. Last year I was riding up Center with my son up to Sinaloa when a kid - probably 6th grade - rode past wobbling all over the place then suddenly cut across both lanes without warning causing an SUV behind him to have to do an emergency stop. The ensuing honk from the shaken driver resulted in the kid flipping him off, all without ever looking back once. The kid then proceeded to blow through two stops. After this happened with Hailey, I immediately thought of that incident and regretted not telling his parents or the school. Point is, kids on bikes are going to do dumb stuff. It's up to us as citizens to slow down and keep them in mind.
Tom James November 14, 2012 at 03:32 AM
No one should have to lose a child, especially one only twelve years old. However, this action highlights why people hate trial lawyers. This guy is obviously just in it for the money. He could care less about the family or the impact on the taxpayers of Novato. I used to ride my bike down Novato Blvd.to Stafford lake frequently and never had a problem. But than, I never crossed busy Novato Blvd. except at the intersection of San Marin and Novato. And than I walked my bike across Novato Blvd. This suit is similar to the case of the little girl killed by the jerk on a Harley at the intersection of San Marin and San Carlos. Everyone in San Marin knows that the approach to the eastbound approach to San Carlos while on San Marin is a speed trap. So the City has done all it can to slow down the traffic. But that can't stop some drunk jerk on a motor bike. Yet the City is being sued. Again, that's why everyone hates trail lawyers. Recall that John Edwards was a very wealthy trial lawyer who was being supported in his run for the Presidency by the trail lawyers association. .
JaneDoe4 November 14, 2012 at 04:13 AM
This is very disheartening and sad. I agree with Ken's comment. While everyone has been pointing fingers right and left, I notice nobody will state the obvious: Hailey turned her bike into the street, where she was riding on the wrong side of the street, less than a mile away from a crosswalk (at a 4-way stop), and was struck and killed. Had she followed the rules of the road she would be alive today. I'm sorry if that's harsh, and I'm not taking away from the terrible tragedy, but those are the facts.
John Glennon November 14, 2012 at 06:38 AM
Well said, Ken. The "when in doubt sue everybody in sight" mentality just makes this horrible accident worse.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr November 14, 2012 at 10:43 AM
The original report was that the death was caused by the deceased driving the wrong way in traffic. Is that not the truth? Driver education for bicyclists should be part of the school curriculum before 6th grade and parents should observe whether their children are obeying traffic laws. Adult bicyclists set a poor example as they ignore stop signs and other traffic laws.
Jerome J Ghigliotti Jr November 14, 2012 at 10:46 AM
The death of a child is tragic, but may not have resulted from misconduct by others. Because of the tragedy involving a child, the city will settle for fear of large jury verdicts by sympathetic jurors rather than legal responsibility.
Mark Burnham November 14, 2012 at 02:42 PM
Steve 25 mph to the dog park is overkill. Roads like Olive Ave, Sutro Ave, Center Ave. ect.. are all 30 mph and they are far more narrow, are 100% in residential neighborhoods with homes bordering both sides of the street, and each passes a large elementary school. On Novato Blvd perhaps 35 mph to the point past the dog park would be more reasonable with 25 mph, of course, being enforced in the school zone during school hours. Also let's not forget that Novato Blvd has a dedicated walking/bike path on the south side of the road and I believe there is also a sidewalk on the north side of the road that continues up to the PG&E structure and perhaps beyond to the entrance to the housing development beyond the softball field. Finally, the crosswalk at Sutro/SM Drive and Novato Blvd is where people should be crossing now, especially children. This is a horrible tragedy but it is one that could have been avoided had Hailey used the crosswalk. Let's remind our children to use crosswalks and to walk their bikes (not ride) carefully in this space.
Melissa Ayotte November 14, 2012 at 04:01 PM
I believe that when children are present the speed limit lowers to 25 mph no matter what the posted limit is. And I do think it is the city's fault for not enforcing the speed limit. What good is a posted sign if half the drivers ignore it and nobody cares? I live on Hamilton where only about half the drivers stop for stop signs. We all know it, no one ever gets a ticket so what good are those stop signs. The city of Novato should be ashamed of it's lack of traffic law enforcement.
Desiree Richards November 14, 2012 at 04:42 PM
You are heartless. Had the speed limit been appropriate for a residential school zone, perhaps the driver would have been able to stop. Apparently she did make a mistake, however, the city is clearly at fault for allowing almost freeway speeds in front of a park and a residential neighborhood. In addition the city has not maintained the vegetation to provide good visibility .
Demosthenes November 14, 2012 at 05:31 PM
This town needs more infrastructure that offers protection to bicyclists, like protected bike lanes, dedicated bike/pedestrian paths. More separation from motorists would be helpful in keeping all of our children safe.
Carol November 14, 2012 at 06:36 PM
I am so sorry for your loss, Mr. Ratliff. I can't even begin to imagine what you and your family are enduring. I think you're doing the right thing. It is an unsafe roadway.
Mark Burnham November 14, 2012 at 07:43 PM
Desiree, there is almost zero vegetation between the path, the dirt strip, and the road on this stretch of Novato Blvd. The speed limit is 45 mph here. This is the same speed limit on many road throughout Novato and beyond. Atherton Avenue for example provides far, far less room for pedestrians and bicyclists. The city cannnot and should not be held responsible for this incident. I cannot begin to understand what this family is feeling but my heart and thoughts do go out to them.
Crystal Ratliff-Chavez November 14, 2012 at 08:37 PM
Mark there are leafy tree branches right in front of the speed limit signs.
Crystal Ratliff-Chavez November 14, 2012 at 09:03 PM
I'm so sorry brother. So many people quick to judge and make heartless comments. I am sure they have never suffered a tragedy such as yours. No one but Samuel knows what he was doing at the time of the accident. That is an unsafe stretch of road. Why haven't tax dollars been used to clearly post the school zone and maintain the vegetation? The signs are small and pathetic covered by leaves on the hanging tree branches. Any residential area I have ever been in has a speed limit of no higher than 35 mph and clear designation of a school zone and speed limits. I witnessed neither when I went to Novato to pay my respects to Hailey. Thank you to those of you with compassion.
Steve B November 14, 2012 at 09:30 PM
Dear Charles, If this is really you, I can't believe you read the garbage people post on Patch. As accounts are basically anonymous, people post thoughtless rubbish for emotional effect... For your own peace and emotions, I suggest you don't read this website's content. Steve
Mower Militia November 14, 2012 at 10:34 PM
I've been mowing and trimming and cleaning on my own and with others for years... More visibility for vehicles, fewer places for muggers and rapists to hide and stalk, more civic pride from properly-maintained public areas... Get out there and do it yourselves folks! Regarding the prosecution of the person who cut down vegetation, that is pretty bad news for a city that doesn't take care of itself to punish a volunteer!
Brent Ainsworth (Editor) November 15, 2012 at 04:16 AM
Hey everyone, we've decided to turn off the comment thread on this story. While we appreciate the dialog, we feel like this is too sensitive of a subject. We're seeing too many comments on this that we think (and hope) that those leaving them might regret. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

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