An Unresolved Death 

It's time for the City of Alameda to take responsibility for the drowning of an Oakland doctor.

On the evening of November 7, 2005, Dr. Zehra Attari became disoriented on her way to a conference in Alameda and drove her car into the estuary. It took authorities nearly seven weeks to find her body. Her family was horrified to learn that the street she was driving on that dark and rainy night went straight into the water, with almost no warning. So they sued the City of Alameda. But nearly three years after her death, city officials still steadfastly refuse to take responsibility for the Oakland pediatrician's death. In fact, they have fought Attari's family at every turn and are now battling California Attorney General Jerry Brown over who should share the blame.

Lawyers representing the city also are clinging to the remote possibility that Attari was murdered or committed suicide, despite the fact that police long ago abandoned an investigation into whether her death was the result of foul play. For months, the city has dragged its feet in returning the doctor's personal belongings found in her car. And in recent weeks, private lawyers employed by the city have refused to turn over Attari's things until they've had a chance to thoroughly examine and photograph them. "I'm really irritated about that," said Louis Franecke, a San Rafael attorney who represents Attari's husband and her children. "They're just playing hardball. They've been obstructing us all along. And now they're blaming the state instead of taking responsibility."

In recent months, Brown and the City of Alameda have sued each other over who was responsible for Attari's tragic death. City officials maintain that if a jury ultimately rules against them, then the state should be held partially liable because back in the early 1990s an obscure state agency approved plans for the street and the boat ramp where Attari's car went into the estuary. But lawyers for Brown, who defends state agencies against lawsuits, maintain that state inspectors had no responsibility to analyze the safety of Alameda's street plans.

Attari was driving on Grand Street when she died, and at the time, it clearly was a dangerous road. In fact, almost exactly three years before Attari died, two men drowned after their car plunged into the estuary in the very same spot. But city officials ignored the obvious safety hazard at the time because police had blamed the earlier accident on drunken driving after they found alcohol bottles in the backseat of the two men's car.

There was never any such evidence found in Attari's car. She was a respected doctor who lived in San Jose and ran a practice that treated low-income children in Oakland's Fruitvale District. The night she died, she left her International Boulevard office on her way to a conference on Alameda's Bay Farm Island. Her family later said she had a poor sense of direction and an Alameda resident subsequently told police that she thought she saw Attari just before her death in a Trader Joe's parking lot in the western end of the city. The resident reportedly said that Attari looked lost and distraught.

Attari likely made several wrong turns and ended up on Grand Street heading back toward Oakland. In the rain and darkness, she likely didn't see the lone yellow sign on her left that read "End," or the single flashing red overhead light a few dozen yards before the water. At the time, those were the only warnings that the road was about to turn seamlessly into a boat ramp that plunges straight into the murky water.

After Attari's death, city officials repeatedly denied anything was wrong with Grand Street. But then a short time later, city officials made a telling admission of guilt. They installed temporary barricades to stop motorists from meeting the same fate as Attari. Grand Street suddenly started to resemble other boat ramps in the city and elsewhere in which motorists have to make a sharp turn off a regular street or go through a gate before they arrive at the water's edge. The barricades remain to this day.

In their lawsuit, the Attari family revealed last year that they will be seeking at least $6.5 million in damages at trial. That is what they say the 55-year-old doctor would have earned if she kept working for another twenty years. In its response, the city denies any wrongdoing. But in its suit against the state, it maintains that the state Department of Boating and Waterways should have to pay some of the damages should a jury award them. "This was a joint project between the city and the state," said Thomas Trachuk, an Oakland attorney representing Alameda in both the Attari lawsuit and the legal fight with Jerry Brown. "And we believe the design was absolutely safe, appropriate, and reasonable."

The state became involved in the Grand Street boat ramp renovation project in 1990 when it awarded a small grant to the city. As part of the grant, state engineers for the Department of Boating and Waterways reviewed and approved the city's design plans. Trachuk said that the state's "nationally recognized experts" analyzed not only the architectural drawings but also the signage that warned motorists about the estuary. "The state had absolute power" to reject the city's proposal, he said.

Jeffrey Vincent, a deputy attorney general who is handling the case for Brown, was in trial last week and not available for comment. But in court documents, he said the contract between the city and state stipulated that Alameda immunize the state from legal judgments. He also argued that it wasn't the responsibility of state engineers to inspect the plans for safety hazards. "The state of California's role in the improvements was to insure that state funding was used for the purpose of the grant, i.e., to provide public access to the waterways," he wrote.

Though the Attari family also named the state as one of the defendants in its suit against Alameda, it seemed clear from talking to their lawyer, Franecke, that they believe the city is mostly, if not entirely, at fault. And they're angry about the city's continuing refusal to release the doctor's personal belongings without another thorough examination of them, even though Alameda police presumably inspected them nearly three years ago as part of the investigation into Attari's death. Franecke also noted that there could be confidential patient information among the items that city lawyers have no authority to see.

But Trachuk contends that he has every right to closely examine the doctor's things, because he said there are still too many unanswered questions about her death. Among them, he said, was why Attari left her office at about 5 p.m. for a 6:30 p.m. conference only a few miles away. He also said it was curious why the windows of her car were rolled up and the driver's side door was locked, but not the passenger's side. "The coroner could not determine the time, cause, or even manner of death," he added.

It seems pretty clear that the City of Alameda is desperately trying to do whatever it can to avoid a huge legal judgment. But it's grasping at straws. The city's own police department found no evidence that Attari was the victim of foul play, and it was the city — not the state — that designed and maintained Grand Street. It's abundantly clear that she died because of a badly designed street/boat ramp that had inadequate warning signs. The city tacitly acknowledged as much when it put up the barricades after her death and kept them there. It's time for city leaders to accept responsibility and end the Attari family's pain.

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