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Highway Safety

Accidents are not only caused by driver negligence.  Sometimes the roadways are unsafe. Governmental entities collect billions of dollars in taxes that are used to create and maintain of our nation’s roadways.   Highway safety and design standards vary from state to state. However, the basic duty to provide drivers with access to reasonably safe roads applies throughout the country. To fulfill this duty, states must eliminate hazards and other dangerous conditions that pose a threat to the lives of drivers.    For example, constructing sufficient guardrails and median barriers, maintaining clear zones on the shoulders of highways, warning of hazardous conditions by placing warning signs in the appropriate locations, and clearly defining crosswalks for pedestrians.

Highway Safety cases fall into three overarching categories. First, the road may simply be inadequate upon its construction. An example would be a road immediately bordered with trees or utility poles. Second, due to changes in design standards, a road may fall drastically below the current requirements for roadway safety. Third, the state has a duty to monitor and respond to conditions that did not exist at the time of the road’s construction. Examples may include significantly increased traffic volume, a new school requiring kids to cross a busy intersection, or a steady pattern of accidents in a particular location.

Government entities retain the duty to provide motorists with access to, and maintenance of, reasonably safe roads.

In order to fulfill its duty to provide reasonably safe roads, both in design and in operation, government entities must adhere to the appropriate standard of care.

The attorneys at SKW employ top engineering, safety and human factor’s experts in the field when handling these types of cases.  We are committed to bringing justice to victims injured in preventable accidents caused by the state’s substandard level of care in maintaining and constructing its roads. We are invested in holding governmental agencies accountable for their negligence and reducing the number of victims seriously injured on the roads.  As the result of our work, not only have victims received justice, but governmental entities have made roadways safer for the general public.

Representative Cases

Wuthrich v. King County

The 2016 Wuthrich v. King County decision makes roadways in our state safer for everyone. In a unanimous decision handed down on Wuthrich, the Washington State Supreme Court held that a municipality has a duty to take reasonable steps to address overgrown roadside vegetation that makes the roadway unsafe for drivers approaching an intersection.

Wuthrich advances roadway safety for anyone who travels the roads in Washington State. As our state’s highest court maintains: A municipality has the overarching duty to provide reasonably safe roads and must be held to the same standards as that applied to private parties.

Our state’s supreme court now explicitly rejects old law that held that a municipality’s duty is limited to mere compliance with applicable law. Moreover, an “inherently dangerous condition” does not exclusively depend on a condition that “exists in the roadway itself.” A hazard may exist as a situation along a highway, such as overgrown bushes that obstruct drivers’ view of oncoming traffic.

The Wuthrich decision stems from a June 2011 lawsuit that Guy Wuthrich filed against Christa Gilland and King County. Guy was riding a motorcycle on Avondale Road NE in King County, approaching an intersection with NE 159th Street on June 20, 2008 at about 5:15 PM. Drivers on 159th St. have a stop sign at the intersection, but drivers on Avondale Road do not. Christa Gilland was driver a car on 159th Street. When she reached the intersection with Avondale Rd., she stopped to wait for passing traffic. She did not see Guy approaching from her left. She turned left onto Avondale Road and collided into Guy’s motorcycle, resulting in serious injuries to Guy. The lawsuit alleged that the County was liable for Guy’s injuries because the wall of overgrown blackberry bushes on County property obstructed Ms. Gilland’s view of traffic at the intersection. The trial court dismissed the action against the County on summary judgment. The Court of Appeals affirmed in a split decision.

Ray Kahler argued before the Supreme Court and you may watch his oral argument here.

Moothart v. State of Washington
Todd Moothart, a 50 yo software engineer, sustained serious injuries that put him in the hospital and then nursing home for several months. He will live for the rest of his life with ongoing pain and disabilities.

Todd Moothart, a 50 yo software engineer, sustained serious injuries that put him in the hospital and then nursing home for several months. He will live for the rest of his life with ongoing pain and disabilities.

A Thurston County jury awarded a Vancouver man almost $3 million for multiple injuries caused by a pavement edge drop-off on a highway on-ramp.

Todd Moothart, a 50-year-old software development engineer, was on a motorcycle ride with two friends on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in September 2013. Their plan was to head east on State Route 14 to a viewpoint overlooking the Klickitat River. When Moothart and another rider got separated from the third motorcyclist by a traffic light, Moothart decided to pull off onto the shoulder of an on-ramp for SR 14 to stop and wait for the third motorcyclist to catch up. It is safer for motorcyclists to ride together as a group because they have a more visible  presence on the road.

A 7 " deep piece of pavement jutted out from the main road just beyond the drop-off.

When Moothart pulled off onto the shoulder, he encountered a seven inch deep pavement edge drop-off at the fog line. A seven inch deep piece of pavement jutted out from the edge of the pavement just beyond the drop-off. When Moothart’s Harley Davidson motorcycle hit the face of the broken pavement, his front and rear wheels were severely dented, and he was launched into the air like he was on a trampoline.

Safety standards in the transportation engineering field recommend that pavement edge drop-offs be kept to a depth of no greater than two inches. The Washington Department of Transportation (WSDOT) striping truck had came upon the pavement edge pothole and had painted the white fog stripe around it. In other words, WSDOT clearly acknowledging the hazard but did not report or repair it.

Moothart and his passenger were both ejected from the motorcycle. Moothart suffered multiple injuries, including a kidney laceration, numerous broken ribs, collapsed lungs, pulmonary contusions, a concussion, broken bones in both forearms, amputation of the top joint of his right index finger, and fractures to bones in his right pelvic ring. He was placed on a mechanical ventilator for eight days and required several surgeries.

Moothart spent 21 days in the hospital, followed by 55 days in a nursing home. He was then cared for by his mother and sister in Iowa for two months before he returned to Vancouver and resumed working part time.

The design plans for the on-ramp called for an eight foot paved shoulder on the right hand side. At the location where Moothart pulled off, there was no paved shoulder at all beyond the fog line. For unknown reasons, the State’s as-built plans for the on-ramp showed an eight foot paved shoulder, but the evidence indicated that the on-ramp never had an eight-foot paved shoulder in the area where Moothart pulled off. The on-ramp was built in the mid 90’s.

The Honorable Mary Sue Wilson granted judgment as a matter of law on the State’s negligence based on the State’s failure to provide an eight foot paved shoulder as required by the design plans. The jury also found that the State failed to maintain the on-ramp in a reasonably safe condition for ordinary travel.

Moothart has chronic pain due to myofascial injuries and nerve damage but is able to work full time. He has ongoing disabilities related to the loss of the top joint of his right index finger, myofascial damage in his forearms, and chronic pain. He no longer rides motorcycles because the crash took the enjoyment out of riding for him. He had been a motorcycle enthusiast for over 30 years.

The jury awarded $2,993,000, which included approximately $500,000 in undisputed past medical bills and wage loss. While the jury found negligence on the part of Moothart, it did not find proximate cause with regard to Moothart’s negligence.

The jurors’ post-trial message to WSDOT was that it needed to develop a clear policy for identifying, reporting and promptly repairing pavement edge drop-offs so that others will not have to suffer serious injuries the way Mr. Moothart did.

Ride the Ducks Cases
The firm of Stritmatter Kessler represents the largest number of victims from the September 2015 Ride the Ducks crash on Aurora Bridge in Seattle. At last count*, our attorneys represent 20 Ride the Ducks victims. The cases involve claims of driver negligence, corporate negligence, product liability, vehicle crashworthiness, negligent highway design, and insurance coverage. It is complicated and will take years to litigate. The defendants include Ride the Ducks (RTD) Seattle, Ride the Ducks International, and T.H.E., their insurance company. The City of Seattle and the State of Washington are also defendants. These entities were legally responsible to maintain the Aurora Bridge in a reasonably safe condition. But they failed to adopt their own safety recommendations. *Last updated June 15, 2016.
Ride the Ducks victim seeks justice
Ride the Ducks victim seeks justice. (Ellen M. Bonner/Seattle Times)

Ride the Ducks victim fights to get justice. (Ellen M. Bonner/Seattle Times)

On September 24, 2015, a Ride the Duck modified amphibious military vehicle crossed the centerline of the SR 99 Aurora Bridge and into a tour bus. The passenger compartment of the bus was penetrated.  5 people in the bus died and approximately 64 people were injured. Phuong Dihn, an 18 year old international student from Vietnam, was seriously injured.

The Duck was re-manufactured by Ride the Ducks International, who sold the vehicle to Ride the Ducks Seattle in 2005.  In 2013, RTD International realized the axel housing was dangerously defective. It issued a service bulletin to it purchasers, warning of the defect and advising of the need for repair. RTD Seattle did not perform the repair. The preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board is that the left axle of the Duck failed.

NTSB graphic of Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle.

NTSB graphic of Ride the Ducks amphibious vehicle.

Phuong is one of the four of the injured students who remain in a nursing home. Her parents came to care for her but had to leave their other young children behind. She is unable to attend school. When she is discharged, she will need to find a new host parent who will be able to provide accessible housing due to her injuries.

Please help Phuong, as she struggles to recover at this secure site. Donations may also be made by mailing checks to our firm (please include “C/O: Dinh, P: Seattle Aurora Bus Crash 10.2015”)

You may also help Phuong and the other students injured in the crash by donating to the special fund set up by the Salvation Army. 

Tour bus that Ride the Ducks crashed into. Image Credit: NTSB. Tour bus that Ride the Ducks crashed into. Image Credit: NTSB.

Read:

 

Aurora Bridge victims vs State of WA & City of Seattle
SKW clients sustained serious injuries as the result of a Metro bus crashing into oncoming traffic on the Aurora Bridge. A Metro bus driver was shot, and the bus traveled across the Aurora Bridge and through the railing -- plunging to the ground. We deposed SDOT employees. From those depositions, we learned that the State and City has talked about installing a barrier for many years. At that time, we reviewed plans for adding a pedestrian walkway at a level just below the bridge, enabling the City to remove the sidewalk, and move the lanes over to accommodate the median barrier.
Gamper v. State of Washington

(December 2013) $1.1 million settlement.  Long, deep and wide rut in road on SR 12 caused Plaintiff’s motorcycle to crash resulting in multiple internal injuries and fractures.

Gendler v. State of Washington

(August 2010) $8,000,000 settlement for a defective bridge where a gap in the bridge deck was too wide, allowing a bicycle tire to wedge in the gap, throwing the rider to the ground and paralyzing him.

You may have heard an interview on NPR, read a blog post, or read a story in The Seattle Times about this case. In the era of media spin and 15-second sound bites, it’s more often that we are forced to make assessments without the benefit of the facts. What apparently outraged some was the $8 million settlement. If you are interested in knowing the facts behind the story, read on. Make, remake, or confirm your opinion of what this case was about.

Government Liability

Washington State owns the Montlake Bridge. Washington State has a duty to make all roadways safe for bicyclists in addition to cars/all motor vehicles. The roadway across the Montlake Bridge was unsafe for bicycles.  The State knew this, yet chose to do nothing to make it safer. No other business or government entity was responsible for the safety of the Bridge besides the State.

The Montlake Bridge

Since 1999, the Montlake Bridge had been unsafe for cyclists (the State repaired the hazard in 2009). Washington State started a retrofit of the Montlake Bridge in Seattle. The project included replacing the metal grate surface of the traffic lanes. The replacement grate was of a different design than the existing. The seam, formed by two abutting sections of grate, sits in the middle of the lanes of traffic. The specifications for the Bridge deck called for a narrow seam, one that would not have posed a danger to bicycle tires. The State allowed the deck seam to be wider than the specifications called for (based on tolerances), wide enough for a road bike tire to drop into it.

1999 – Notice to the State of a Danger

During the deck replacement project, the State found out how dangerous the seam could be. A cyclist crashed when his front bicycle tire wedged in the seam and he was thrown to the deck face-first. Concerned about other cyclists, he contacted the City of Seattle, who contacted the State’s project manager to inspect the problem. The State’s project manager made a note about the crash in his project diary.

1999 to 2099 – The State Ignored the Danger

  • The State’ project manager does not recall ever following up.
  • The State could have erected a warning sign – it did not.
  • The State could have fixed the problem – it assumed this would not happen again.
  • The State could have closed the roadway to bicycle traffic – it did not.

Mickey’s Crash – October 28, 2007

Mickey met up with a friend to go for a ride around the south end of Lake Washington. They intersected near UW Medical Center. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon on Montlake, not much traffic, so they traveled on the road. There was no traffic within a block’s length behind them. Mickey rode in the right lane. Halfway across the Bridge he switched to the left lane to prepare for a left turn. As he traversed the lane, he was suddenly thrown over his front bars onto the Bridge deck on his back. His front wheel had wedged into the seam in the deck. It took two people to dislodge the wheel.

Bicycles on the Bridge

In comments to the multiple articles written about Mickey’s case, many were critical of his decision to ride on the roadway rather than on the sidewalk. This case settled in the months leading up to the trial date, but in pre-trial motions the court determined that Mickey had the right to ride on the roadway and that Mickey had the right to travel in the left lane because he was preparing for a turn.

  • “[I]t is the ruling of this Court that bicycles are entitled to travel upon the Montlake Bridge roadway as a matter of law.” Judge McPhee, February 16, 2010.
  • “Plaintiff Michael Gendler’s operation of his bicycle in the inside (left) lane of the Montlake Bridge at the time of the subject incident was authorized by law.” Judge McPhee, May 28, 2010.

The Settlement Amount

What does $8 million mean? It’s not winning the lottery. It’s not a windfall. The settlement amount represents the exorbitant costs of the care for someone with a spinal cord injury. To learn more about Mickey’s life as a quadriplegic, read this article.

The $8 million settlement was well justified, as it will help to cover exorbitant medical bills, ongoing medical care, 24/7 assistance, facility accommodations at home and at work, etc.  However, proponents of legislation to reduce the frequently target the Gendler case because of the high settlement amount. We believe that most Washingtonians recognize the importance of keeping the government accountable, when government entities ignore safety issues that could ultimately result in catastrophic injuries to innocent citizens.

Ip v. State of Washington and City of Renton

(July 2008) $1,000,000 settlement for the wrongful death of a 67 year old leaving a wife and two adult sons when he was hit in a dangerous pedestrian crossing.

James Evans v. State of Washington, et al.

(April 2003) $1,000,000 settlement for a moderate brain injury caused in a collision resulting from a lack of a highway median barrier.

Fogle v. Clark County

(March 2012) $2 million settlement with one defendant. Defective road design and signing. Traumatic brain injury to 19 year old girl. Case proceeds to trial against adverse driver and Clark County Public Utility.  Trial verdict of $4,352,350.

Forestier v. City of Vancouver

(November 2006) $6,050,000 settlement for a French foreign exchange student who was a pedestrian hit by a vehicle while crossing Fort Vancouver Way on her way to school.  The City failed to provide proper lighting for the crossing.

Messenger v. Electric Company

(May 2006) $2,100,000 policy limits partial settlement for a 12-year-old brain damaged boy who was a pedestrian hit by a van while crossing the street in an unmarked crosswalk.

Reed v. City of Spokane

2000) $1,000,000 settlement for failure to properly maintain road.

Legier v. Mason County

(1999) $1,750,000 settlement for failure to properly maintain roads.  Resulted in deaths of two children.

Gray v. City of Shelton

(1998) $2,500,000 settlement for failure to properly design crosswalk at school crossing.  Resulted in traumatic brain injury.

Wingo v. State of Washington

(1996) $1,450,000 settlement for failure to properly design and maintain roadway.

Greene v. Pierce County

(1994) $5,466,878.23 verdict for highway design case for failure to have a stop sign at a railroad crossing.  Plaintiff suffered a traumatic brain injury and was blinded in the crash. Second largest personal injury jury verdict in the history of the County at the time.

Hipps v. Grays Harbor County

(1986) $1,150,000 settlement for defect in roadway design and maintenance.  Resulted in traumatic brain injury.

Van Lear v. State of Washington, et al.
Keith and Lisa Van Lear suffered life threatening injuries, when a Jeep made a left turn into a dangerous intersection. After case moved to the State Supreme Court, the State of WA paid our clients a $3.75 million settlement.
Lan Remme v. City of Seattle and State of Washington
Fit cyclists, Lan Remme, hit a dangerous section on the Montlake Bridge. ($4,000,000) WSDOT Bridge Inspectors photo-documented and reported a 2-inch vertical change between concrete sidewalk panels, calling it a Priority One “tripping hazard”. After assigning it a repair number, WSDOT did nothing else. One year later, on April 2, 2011, Lan Remme rode his bicycle onto this Montlake Bridge sidewalk, traveling at 5 mph. According to an eyewitness, at the very point of the 2-inch “tripping hazard”, his front wheel abruptly stopped, pitching him over the handlebars. His helmeted head struck the sidewalk, and he was left motionless. Lan is now an incomplete quadriplegia and suffered serious injuries including right sinus and orbital facial fractures.
Glantz v. City of Lynnwood
Ms. Glantz was seriously injured when attempting to cross a pedestrian walkway. With the help of SKW governmental liability attorneys, she sued the City of Lynnwood for neglecting to correct a defective warning lights that it had knowledge about, and settled for $2.25 million.
Lacey Hicks v. State of Washington Department of Transportation, City of Aberdeen
Due to lack of maintenance of the light poles on the Chehalis River Bridge, one of them smashed through Lacey's car. Lacey sustained serious injuries, including a spinal cord injury. In Spring 2012, the State finally indicated readiness to fund a project for a proper lighting system.