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Property Owner Near Desert Sky Mall on Hook for $2.5 Million Jury Award Over Teen Death Linked to Speed Hump

A jury has found Desert Sky Esplanade L.L.C. partially responsible for the 2005 death of a 16-year-old Phoenix girl near Desert Sky Mall -- all because of a poorly placed speed hump.

The family of Sarah Annette Martinez was awarded $5 million, with half to come from Desert Sky and the other half to be paid by Michael Manzutto, 24, the driver of the car Martinez had been riding in at the time of the fatal accident. Needless to say, Manzutto -- who received probation in 2006 for his role in the wreck -- probably doesn't have $2.5 million. Desert Sky Esplanade L.L.C., on the other hand, owns retail-store-dominated portions of the land surrounding the mall and has the proverbial "deep pockets."

Charles Slack-Mendez, the Tempe lawyer for Martinez's family, tells New Times that Manzutto had stopped to pick up Martinez and his girlfriend, (now wife), from the mall area near 75th Avenue and Thomas Road that fateful day of January 7, 2005. He was going pretty fast as he went south on Center Road. And it didn't help that the property's former owner, John F. Long Properties, had built a speed hump in the worst possible spot -- a curve.

There were no signs warning of the curve or the speed hump, either. Manzutto went over the hump, lost control of his car and hit a tree. A branch of the tree struck Martinez and she flew out of the car. Investigators were never certain whether or not she was wearing a seat belt, Slack-Mendez says, and the jury wasn't allowed to consider the question.

The other defendants in the lawsuit, including John F. Long and the paving company that built the hump, were dismissed as the trial wore on for the past two-and-a-half years, with Desert Sky and Manzutto the only ones left at the end.

Essentially, the award means Desert Sky should have done something about the unsafe speed hump when it purchased the property in 2004, even though Manzutto had been speeding. However, in this case "speeding" is a relative term, says Slack-Mendez -- an interesting fact of Arizona law is that there are no official speed limits on private roads.

Desert Sky Esplanade L.L.C., it turns out, apparently has nothing to do with Desert Sky Mall, which is owned by Westcor, a subsidiary of Macerich. The company is owned by Red Mountain Retail Group in Santa Ana, California. Susan Robertson, in charge of marketing for Red Mountain, tells New Times that the company's CEO, Michael Mugel, would "definitely" not be returning our call, but that we might hear from the company's lawyer. We'll update this post if he gets back to us. 

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.