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Charlottesville settles $5M lawsuit over former planning director who struck, injured pedestrian

A few years ago, the man in charge of overseeing Charlottesville’s cityscape struck a pedestrian in a city crosswalk and paid $94 to satisfy the resulting traffic ticket. But, the ensuing lawsuit against him and his employer, the city of Charlottesville, has come at a steeper price; the matter was quietly settled with a payout of $5 million, one of the largest payouts in Virginia for the year.

“I think the size of the settlement was driven by the fact that the the incident did have a life-changing effect on our client,” the plaintiff’s attorney, Kevin W. Mottley, told The Daily Progress.

It was around 1:40 p.m. on March 15, 2018, when then-53-year-old Patrick N. McKenzie was crossing Market Street at Sixth Street Northeast after walking out of the Market Street Parking Garage in downtown Charlottesville. A vehicle driven by Alexander Ikefuna, then heading what was long known as the city planning department, struck McKenzie and dashed him to the pavement.

“By our estimations he was thrown about 30 feet west on Market Street,” said Mottley.

Despite the force of the impact and despite requiring assistance to get to his feet, Mottley said, McKenzie initially declined medical treatment.

“But he wasn’t good,” said Mottley. “He had suffered a mild traumatic brain injury.”

Ensuing medical testing, Mottley said, showed that McKenzie had also suffered a pituitary gland dysfunction. The injuries, Mottley said, might not be noticed by a bystander, but they can be life-altering. After three decades in related careers, McKenzie had just signed on to a local firm as a financial adviser, but after the incident he went on disability leave.

“It’s not an obvious injury,” said Mottley. “It’s been called the silent epidemic by the CDC.”

Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that complications from traumatic brain injuries can include changes affecting thinking, sensation, language and emotions.

“It’s not like there’s an X-ray or a scan that will show a mild traumatic brain injury,” said Mottley. “It’s based on symptoms.”

At the time of the impact, Ikefuna was the director of the Department of Neighborhood Development Services. According to a recent hiring solicitation, the director is the city’s lead administrator for urban design, of which pedestrian infrastructure is a component.

On Feb. 14, 2020, a week before the lawsuit was filed on Feb. 21, then-City Manager Tarron Richardson announced a departmental reorganization that demoted Ikefuna to deputy director for zoning. Richardson said nothing about the crash, but he did note that Ikefuna’s then-salary of $139,526 would not change.

Today, the 66-year-old Ikefuna is the director of the city’s Office of Community Solutions.

He did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Daily Progress, and city spokeswoman Afton Schneider declined to arrange an interview with the city official.

Schneider claims that the crash resulted in no personnel changes and that Ikefuna’s demotion was unrelated to the incident. This suggests that the only legal trouble to embroil Ikefuna, at least until the lawsuit, was his traffic ticket, a citation by a Charlottesville police officer for violating McKenzie’s right of way.

Ikefuna didn’t contest the ticket but instead prepaid it ahead of the slated court date. According to Charlottesville General District court records, his fine was $30 and his court costs were $64.

While the lawsuit was pending, however, the city’s lawyer, John Zunka, who declined to discuss the case with The Daily Progress, attempted to keep the ticket out of sight from any prospective jury. The plaintiff, by contrast, objected to any effort to conceal that ticket and asserted that prepayment was the city employee’s admission of guilt.

“While the city’s desire to hide unfavorable evidence from the jury is understandable,” the plaintiff wrote, “the city has not articulated a legally sound reason why such evidence or arguments should be prohibited at trial.”

The plaintiff’s legal team, which included Jonathan T. Wren, also told the court that it had obtained an officer’s body-worn camera footage that captured part of the incident.

“It was daytime, clear, and dry,” the suit notes, “with no adverse weather conditions and clear visibility.”

Ikefuna, at the wheel of a city-owned 2013 Ford Escape, had driven the compact sport utility vehicle up the paved alley that separates City Hall from the Market Street Parking Garage. Then, the lawsuit alleged, without properly checking for pedestrians, he wheeled around to his left and flung McKenzie up on the vehicle. Ikefuna then stopped, an action that the lawsuit contended caused McKenzie “to be thrown to the pavement, causing further injury.”

As the lawsuit advanced through Charlottesville Circuit Court, the plaintiff’s legal team reported difficulty getting a city official to sit for a deposition, a sworn pretrial interview, and so the lawyers petitioned the court to order someone from city government to be deposed.

“The court grants plaintiff’s motion to compel deposition testimony,” wrote the presiding judge, Richard Moore, in an October 2022 order. “The court compels the city to designate one or more witnesses who are prepared to provide substantive answers.”

Chris Cullinan, the city’s finance director, eventually sat for a deposition. In that testimony, Cullinan called that intersection “challenging” eight times and speculated that McKenzie had been jaywalking.

“It’s the city’s belief,” Cullinan testified, “that the cause of this incident was a black SUV that actually parked itself across the crosswalk.”

Cullinan asserted that Ikefuna’s view of McKenzie was thereby obscured and that McKenzie might have stepped outside the crosswalk. The plaintiff pushed back by asserting that witnesses would place McKenzie within the crosswalk at the time of impact. As for the challenges of the intersection, the plaintiff noted that in 2017 the city decided against installing protective lights there.

“Defendants would like to invite the jury to blame the intersection rather than Ikefuna,” the plaintiff contended in an October 2020 motion.

Schneider, the city spokeswoman, conceded that there has been no physical change to the intersection since the incident or since the lawsuit was settled in December 2022.

“Nothing involved with the accident caused us to change any policies,” she told The Daily Progress. “It was an unfortunate accident.”

The decision to settle came near the end of 2022, and the lawsuit was dismissed that December. The $5 million settlement was paid by the city’s insurer, Virginia Risk Sharing Association, a self-insurance pool, Schneider said.

According to Virginia Lawyers Weekly, it was the ninth-largest payout in the commonwealth that year, which turned out to be a big one for local lawsuits. Earlier, a jury awarded $15 million to the family of the late Yeardley Love who was murdered by her boyfriend George Huguely V, and another $10.75 million was paid as settlements to the former Miller School student who had his anus and torso pierced when he fell on a sharp piece of bamboo during a field trip along the Rivanna River.

Charlottesville’s most outspoken pedestrian advocacy organization, Livable Cville, said it did not have enough information about the case to comment to The Daily Progress. However, Peter Norton, a University of Virginia historian whose recent books chronicle America’s reliance on cars, expressed dismay.

“In a world laboriously rebuilt to prioritize driving, it is sadly unsurprising that drivers sometimes act like they have priority even where they don’t,” he told The Daily Progress. “To keep walkers safe, we need to make walking normal again.”


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