Washington State Law
Our heart goes out to these families and first responders. The horror depicted in the picture above pales in comparison to the inside of those trains, and the path forward after an event like today’s Amtrak 501 disaster involving multiple fatalities and dozens of injuries.
News is starting to break about potential causes. Amtrak President and Co-CEO Richard Anderson said Positive Train Control (“PTC”) was not activated on the tracks at the time of the derailment. PTC automatically slows the train if it senses the train is going too fast or may crash. Railroad investigator John Hiatt told CNN, “If there was no Positive Train Control in effect there, then shame on them.”
Responsibility for this tragedy is likely to be complicated. The train that derailed this morning was owned by both Washington State and Oregon Departments of Transportation. Amtrak is responsible for service and daily operations. The tracks are owned by Sound Transit. Because this was the “inaugural” trip, independent engineering and transit firms are also in the mix.
Our firm represents 39 victims–a substantial majority–of the Ride the Ducks crash, believed to be the worst mass transit disaster in Seattle history. It involves many of the same issues likely to be investigated in the Amtrak 501 disaster: product design and failure, maintenance or operator failure, and fatal public transportation flaws. With numerous parties and distinct legal theories, this is as complex as litigation gets. These cases require dozens of depositions, ten or more forensic experts, lab and engineering testing on an enormous scale, and hundreds of thousands of pages in documentary evidence.
In the Amtrak 501 disaster, the NTSB will most likely release a preliminary statement concerning potential causes in the coming days or weeks. The full NTSB investigation can take months or years. The NTSB will ultimately hold a hearing regarding the information gathered and its conclusions as to the causes and responsibility for the disaster. NTSB conclusions are not directly admissible in court, however, so the victims of a mass transit disaster still must investigate on their own.
A lot can be learned through comprehensive public disclosure requests and extensive fact-finding investigations in litigation. First responders will likely conduct a review of the crash and their response to a mass casualty incident (“MCI”). Although there are several definitions of MCI, it typically refers to an incident where the scope of the injuries and circumstances on scene force first responders to abandon the ordinary standard of care that would apply to one-to-one (or similar ratio) medical response. An incident will often be declared an MCI during the initial response on scene, which signals to medics and other authorities that they need to triage patients and coordinate the scene. From that point forward, first responders employ a chain of command with assigned groups such as Rescue Group and Operations.
In an MCI, documentation and immediate identification of victims can be impossible. We took 19 depositions of first responders in the Ride the Ducks disaster to piece together the carnage of the scene and swift MCI response by the Seattle Fire Department. After 30 more depositions, the truth reveals itself.
That is, after all, the main goal victims have–what happened to me and my family, and why? I hope the victims of the Amtrak 501 disaster get the answers they deserve.
NOTE: This blog post is excerpted from AndrewAckley.com
The purpose of a road shoulder is to provide a safe place for drivers to pull off. This is what Todd Moothart, a 50 year old software engineer, thought as he tried to pull his motorcycle out of traffic. A conscientious motorcyclist, he wanted to wait for his friends to catch up. Motorcyclists know that it’s safer to travel in groups on the highway to increase their visibility to other vehicles.
When Todd got separated from his two friends on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Fall 2013, he decided to pull off on SR 14 and wait for them. But the road shoulder was far from safe. The broken pavement past the edge of the main road–next to the shoulder–dropped off seven inches.
When Todd pulled his Harley Davidson onto the shoulder, his motorcycle wheel hit the face of the seven-inch broken pavement edge. His motorcycle hit the face of the broken pavement, his front and rear wheels were severely dented, and his body was propelled into the air like he was on a trampoline.
Note that safety standards in the transportation engineering field recommend that pavement edge drop offs be kept to a depth of no greater than two
Todd suffered severe injuries, including a kidney laceration, a concussion, amputation of a part of his right index finger, and broken/fractured bones in his upper and lower body.
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-90s.
Stritmatter Kessler attorneys represented Todd Moothart in trial against the State of Washington in late October/early November of this year. The jury found that the State had failed to maintain the road in a reasonably safe condition.Todd was awarded $2,993,000. Part of the award was for about $500,000 in undisputed past medical bills and wage loss.
Todd was a conscientious motorcyclist who was at the wrong place at the wrong time. Emergencies and split second decisions happen anywhere and anytime. That’s why the shoulder must be maintained per State of Washington standards. The shoulder needs to be safe to pull over for all vehicles. This is the State of Washington has standards for an eight food shoulder with a minimum drop off of 2 inches.
Kudos to our firm’s roadway safety attorneys for educating the jury and judge about the need to keep the State’s road shoulders safe! The government needs to be held accountable, when its roads don’t meet basic safety requirements.
Last week Division II Court of Appeals ruled that cities must provide safe roadways for all traffic, including bicycles. The three-judge panel found that cycling is a mode of “ordinary travel,” not just a sport. This means, Div II says, that cities must maintain roads for safe bicycle travel. What’s the big deal about calling bicycles “ordinary travel?” A lot.
In 2012, a Seattle judge dismissed the consolidated cases for injured cyclists. who argued that the South Lake Union Trolley tracks on Westlake were unsafe for cyclists because of the trolley tracks. Their bike tires too easily got trapped in the flangeways, where the trolleys’ wheels travel. However, the court in that case did not address whether bicycling was considered “ordinary travel” for the purposes of Washington Pattern Jury Instruction (WPI) 140.01. WPI 140.01 says that a municipality “has a duty to exercise ordinary care in the design/construction of its public roads to keep them in a reasonably safe condition for ordinary travel. The judge focused on the fact that the plaintiffs’ attorney in that case (not from our firm) has not provided any expert to testify to the standard of care. In other words, not expert argued that the City of Seattle failed to design and construct the road that was reasonably safe for ordinary travel. Thus, the City was let off the hook.
Plaintiff Pamela O’Neill was seriously injured while commuting home on her bike from work in Port Orchard. When her bike hit a patch of road with gaps in the concrete, her body flew onto the road. O’Neill sued the city, claiming it was negligent in maintaining the road, when it should have provided safe travel for bicycles. A Superior Court judge granted the city’s motion to dismiss the case. The appeals court overturned that dismissal and sent the case back to the lower court “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”
“Bicycles are an integral part of Washington’s ‘statewide multimodal transportation plan,” so cities must make roads safe for bicycles, the judges said.
O’Neill is an experienced cyclist who regularly commuted by bike to and from work and often took new routes to challenge her abilities, the court ruling said. Before July 18, 2009, she had never ridden down Sidney Avenue, the record said. As she headed down the hill, the road conditions changed from smooth to uneven. Photographs of the site of the accident showed “gaps between concrete slabs of up to 4 inches and height differentials of more than 1 inch,” the court said. At one point, Pamela’s handlebars jerked to the right, throwing her to the ground. She landed on her head and right shoulder and suffered serious injuries.
A city public works director said in his deposition that the city fixes roadways on a “complaint-based system” and the city had not received complaints about that stretch of road.
To challenge that claim, O’Neill offered testimony from an expert witness named James Couch, a U.S. Cycling Federation coach who owned a bicycle store in Tacoma. He said the breaks in the concrete slab were “enough to cause even the most skilled cyclist to lose control of their bike.”
The Superior Court found that Couch did not qualify as an expert witness and excluded his testimony, but the appeals court said Couch’s knowledge, skills and experience qualified him as an expert and the court erred by excluding his statements.
The judges also said the court erred when it said O’Neill “assumed the risk of poor roadway surface conditions” under the doctrine of implied assumption of risk.
“Falling is an inherent and necessary risk of the activity of cycling, and O’Neill assumed the general risk that she would fall off her bicycle and injure herself,” the judges wrote. “She did not, however, assume the enhanced risks associated with the City’s failure to repair an alleged defective roadway of which the City allegedly had constructive notice.”
A little over a year after my client, Daniel Ahrendt, caught his tire at the intersection where First Hill Streetcar tracks curved onto the bike lane. I’m saddened, but not surprised to learn about 27 year old Desiree McCloud’s death. She too crashed along the same tracks, close to where Ahrendt was run over by a Metro bus. Witnesses apparently saw her flip over her handlebars and hit the pavement.
The South Lake Union cyclist crash cases were dismissed because the City argued that bicycles were not considered “ordinary travel” along the South Lake Union route. In fact, the City had planned to ban bicycles there.
However, in Daniel’s and Desiree McCloud’s cases, the City included bike lanes along the First Hill Streetcar line. The argument that bicycling is not considered “ordinary travel” cannot pass muster for our injured/killed cyclists who were invited to ride their bikes on this hazardous portion of the streetcar line. We must not blame cyclists, when the City developed this new streetcar line with eyes wide open regarding the extraordinary hazard that the curved tracks pose to cyclists and those on wheelchairs.
Note, there are rubber flangeway fillers along this streetcar line in the International District by 8th Avenue. Why there aren’t flangeway fillers or something else that will prevent cyclists from unintentionally falling into these curved tracks escapes me. Excuses about the cost in replacing the rubber or maintaining them is absurd. How many lives and serious injuries does the City need to see, before it does something like it did in response to the injuries and deaths from cyclist crashes on Second Avenue?
Please visit the donation page that Desiree’s family put up, which will go to cover medical costs, etc.
Since our move to our new building, our firm continues to scale to new heights. Figuratively, we helped shape and advance law to make the roads safer in our state: The Washington Supreme Court‘s unanimous decision of Wuthrich v. King County was one of our more recent victories, which tossed out old law and clearly stated that governmental entities have the same duty as private landowners in maintaining their land so that people can travel safely on adjacent roads.
Literally, we have people scaling our building at our new location to hang exterior signage.
But, we are focused on our work…
But, we can still enjoy the fact that we are loving our new building, inside and out. Pictured below is our new reception signage.
*NOTE: Stritmatter Kessler Whelan is now officially Stritmatter Kessler Whelan Koehler Moore Kahler
Often my heart swells with pride for the work that my firm does because the results from our cases truly make our state safer for everyone. Today is one of those days: In a unanimous decision in Wuthrich v. King County, 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.
Today’s decision 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 decision today 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.
Some of you may have already seen our Ray Kahler argue before the Supreme Court. But, in case you missed it and want to hear some stellar arguments, click here. Kudos to the entire team, including Ray, Keith Kessler, Garth Jones and Brad J. Moore.
With the quiet launch of the First Hill Streetcar this weekend, I am reminded of client Daniel Ahrendt‘s amazing recovery from his bicycle crash at an intersection, where the streetcar runs. A seasoned commuter cyclist, Daniel was riding his bicycle on the clear and dry morning of May 4, 2015. However, the streetcar tracks posed the same hazard as they always did for cyclists who wanted to ride on that commuter facility at the intersection of Rainier Avenue South, Boren Avenue South, Jackson and 14th Avenue South.
This past Christmas, KOMO TV aired a “Special Report” on Daniel’s road to recovery, after a horrific incident, where he fell, after his tire was caught in the streetcar tracks and a Metro bus ran over him. The story reveals the strength of Daniel’s character and the amazing family that he had that supported him throughout the most challenging year of his life.
Worth noting is that there are international best practices that could have prevented this catastrophic incident. More to come in future blog posts.
I just read an article in today’s Seattle Times that I had to share here as it’s a stark reminder that distracted driving can kill.
Washington was one of the first states to enact a ban on texting or talking on a handheld cellphone while operating a moving vehicle. Under WA State law, drivers can be charged under one of three prongs: 1) Operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol; 2) in a reckless manner; or 3) with disregard for the safety of others. The Seattle Times article is about a WA resident charged under the third prong.
A Seattle resident allegedly tampered with her cell phone records, to hide her pattern of distracted driving. The woman was charged with vehicular homicide just last week. A King County prosecutor accused the woman of talking on her cellphone when she struck and killed an elderly pedestrian in February 2014. The police indicated that she altered phone records in an attempt to cover up her distracted-driving behavior.
Last year, on a clear and dry February afternoon, 78 year old Tze Kiu Ng stepped off a Metro bus at a bus stop in South Seattle. Mr. Ng was walking eastward at a marked crosswalk. A woman driving a minivan was stopped at a stop sign behind the bus. Ng had almost crossed the street when the woman accelerated across the intersection and rammed the van into him. The woman stayed in her vehicle for about five minutes, talking on her phone, the bus driver later told police.
The police easily ruled out speed and impairment. But the driver charged with vehicular homicide told officers she “never saw the pedestrian until the impact occurred.”
The day was cold, clear and sunny and there was nothing to obstruct her view of Ng, the charges say.
Although the defendant turned over some phone records, the formatting raised suspicions because of lack of information regarding the cellphone carrier.
I just hope plenty of people read this and share it with others. Too often I see drivers texting or yakking on their phones while driving. This type of distracted driving is just as lethal as drunk driving.
Decide for yourself who has the more cogent arguments, when watching the Washington State Supreme Court oral arguments for Wuthrich v. King County. We’re proud of Ray Kahler, Seattle/Hoquiam trial lawyer for demonstrating his mastery of the relevant case law in arguing for Wuthrich.