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Reality Check

Robert Scheer

Killer Curve: Ken and Cheryl Beck took this corner on Metcalf Road at between 41 and 46 miles per hour--15 mph faster than most drivers, according to a study following their accident.

A midnight joyride that left a San Jose couple paralyzed from the neck down will cost taxpayers about $7 million. And attorneys say that's a bargain.

By Michael Learmonth

IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL night for a drive. The 100-degree sun had mercifully retired for the day, but south San Jose's golden hills still radiated heat into the balmy air. On this night in June 1994, Ken and Cheryl Beck drove to Morgan Hill after work for a late dinner at Sinaloa Cafe on Monterey Highway. After dinner, the Becks hopped into their convertible with the rest of a warm evening, a short drive home and the best part of their lives ahead of them.

The couple had all the material trappings of a successful life in Silicon Valley: high-paying jobs at Silicon Graphics and Wyse Technology, a house next to Metcalf Park, a brand-new, bright-red Mazda Miata.

They decided to take a side trip on their way home to feel the night air on their faces and catch a mountaintop view of the glittering valley. Ken Beck turned the car up Metcalf Road about a mile south of the couple's home. The winding road is cut from the wall of a ravine, with a graded hillside on the left and a steep drop-off on the right.

Built for rural use, the road is narrower than most roads urban drivers are accustomed to, with soft shoulders and no guardrails or reflectors. It is a road seemingly made for a little sports car, and Ken Beck was getting used to shifting through the gears of their new toy, which had barely 1,200 miles on the odometer.

About two miles up Metcalf, the couple stopped at Motorcycle County Park to switch seats so Cheryl could drive, then turned around to head back down the hill.

Cheryl pulled the car back out onto Metcalf, passing a yellow "rock slide area" sign. Past the park, Cheryl Beck let the throttle out to test the little car on the curves. As she approached the first major right turn into the ravine--a turn she had seen just minutes ago--she was driving between 41 and 46 miles per hour.

Perhaps she kept her eye on the sparkling night vista a moment too long. Perhaps her reflexes were slowed just a little by the two margaritas she said she had had at Sinaloa's. Or perhaps she had just found herself going too fast on the pitch-dark road for any car--even a sporty Miata--to take the turn.

Or maybe, as the Becks' attorney later argued, the road was unsafe because it lacked warning signs, reflectors, guardrails and stable shoulders.

When the Becks hit the curve, Cheryl oversteered the car toward the rocky grade on the right, then tried to compensate by nudging the wheel to the left. At that moment, as the Becks' attorney later wrote, "physics took over." The car skidded across the oncoming lane, left the shoulder and rolled 160 feet down the ravine, coming to rest suspended upside-down in a thicket of trees where no one would notice them for 14 hours.

The accident left both Cheryl and Ken Beck paralyzed from the neck down. Both have regained some use of their arms and wrists but are faced with a lifelong need for caretakers for everything from brushing their teeth and getting dressed to positioning them in bed at night for sleep.

There can be no consolation for such a tragic event, but a year after the accident, the Becks tried, by suing Mazda, the city of San Jose and Santa Clara County. In their initial lawsuit, the Becks sought combined damages of $40 million against the city and county for "negligent creation of a dangerous condition" on Metcalf Road and their "failure to correct" it.

The city of San Jose has tried to settle the Becks' case out of court, reportedly offering about $2.35 million. At press time the Becks had not formally accepted the offer, although they settled with Santa Clara County for $4.7 million earlier this month.

Safety Check

THE FACT THAT the Becks were out joyriding and admitted causing the accident, city attorneys decided, would probably not cause them to lose the case: "I was out enjoying our new car," Cheryl Beck said to a police investigator. "I took the turn too fast, and the next thing I knew we went over the edge."

The Becks referred questions about the settlement to their attorney, Ronald Rouda, who failed to return numerous phone calls.

The county's attorney says that on the facts alone, both the city and county could have had a strong case against the Becks. But this is where it becomes obvious that Lady Justice sometimes cannot help but peek through the blindfold.

"Cases that seem defensible are not always," says Ann Ravel, assistant county counsel. "Particularly when there are two plaintiffs that are husband and wife who are quadriplegics."

Even the most stoic of juries could not help but be moved by the story of the Becks hanging there by their seatbelts for 14 hours waiting to be discovered. When they were found by a delivery truck driver the next day, the temperature in the ravine was more than 100 degrees. It took two hours for rescue workers to extract the Becks from their car before they were taken by helicopter to Valley Medical Center.

Surely, then, the jury would hear about the surgeries, the arduous rehabilitation, the financial ruin and mental distress of having to face new lives as severely disabled people. There would be the powerful presence of the Becks themselves--sitting in wheelchairs positioned close enough, as one lawyer for the city suggested, for them to touch hands. They would recount all the hopes dashed by the accident; walking in the park across from their home, putting their arms around each another, having a family.

If only one of the Becks had been crippled, leaving the other to act as caretaker, Ravel says, the county would probably have opted to mount a defense in court. But after the county consulted a mock jury, it decided that the plaintiffs were so sympathetic, the risk to the county and the taxpayers would be too great.

"I think we had a good argument that the road was not in dangerous condition," Ravel says, "but there is an argument that there was lack of warning signs and lack of guardrail."

Had the county gone to court, Ravel believes its exposure to liability could have been as high as $60 million. In that scenario, even if the county were found by a jury to be responsible for a small percentage of the accident, the judgment would be astronomical.

"There is no question that she [Cheryl] has contributory negligence," Ravel says. "We would have assessed it at at least 50 percent. But even if the county were found 1 percent negligent, the exposure would be extremely high."

Gerald Uelmen, professor of law at Santa Clara University, says the county's decision to fold its hand reflected the risk presented by incredibly high stakes. "Whenever a lawsuit of this nature is settled, you're assessing the risk of going to trial," he says.

SINCE THE BECKS were found so many hours after the accident, there was no way to determine Cheryl Beck's blood-alcohol level at the time of the accident. She admitted to having two drinks shortly before it took place.

Accident investigators measured the average speed of cars on the curve and found that, during the day, 85 percent took the curve at 33 miles per hour, and the median speed was 30 miles per hour. The Becks were traveling about 15 miles per hour faster than that, at about 11pm.

Had the case gone to trial, these facts would also have been put before the jury. But so would have the other circumstances of the accident.

The Becks' case hinged on an environmental impact report on Metcalf Road, completed in 1974, which recommended the road be upgraded to safely handle the additional traffic that the Motorcycle County Park was expected to generate. The report, produced by an independent consultant, also warned that encouraging additional traffic on the road "may cause the county to be held liable for resulting accidents."

If the county was going to build a park for people who want to risk their necks on dirt bikes, the consultant's reasoning went, then the county had better make sure the road accessing that park was perfectly safe.

In the end, the mock jury reflected society's strong belief that people who experience misfortune as terrible as the Becks' ought to be taken care of. Shortly after their accident, the Becks received letters of sympathy from all over the country, and friends and colleagues threw a benefit at the Fairmont Hotel.

The letters and generosity toward the Becks are examples of humanity's finest impulse. The city and county believe that impulse would make a truly fair trial in the Beck case impossible. Rather than try to defend taxpayers' interests in court, they have decided to spend more than $7 million.

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From the Nov. 26-Dec. 3, 1997 issue of Metro.

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