The family members who survived the December 21, 2012 tree fall incident on U.S. 2 have settled their claims against the State of Washington for $10 million.
In the days leading up to the tragedy, a combination of unusual weather events led to a highly dangerous situation in Chelan County. Soil was soft from earlier warmer and wetter weather. This increased the tendency for trees to lean. Heavy snowfall occurred, along with freezing temperatures and light winds. Trees were covered with especially high snow loads.
As a result, in the days before this tragedy, hundreds of trees were breaking and falling. Just three days earlier, on December 18, Chelan County had issued a Declaration of Emergency. The county was taking extraordinary measures to ensure public safety. Local drivers were asked to restrict travel. Even utility workers were restricted from restoring power due to the danger of falling trees. The State DOT did not echo any of these warnings to the general public. The Owen family was travelling from Bothell to Leavenworth. The only warning sign issued to the travelling public on U.S. 2 was “traction tires advised.”
Trees had been falling across U.S. 2 in the vicinity of where the Owen vehicle would be hit. Less than 12 hours before the fatal strike, another large tree fell near the same location. At around 1:30 p.m. the Owen family was almost at milepost 79, when a leaning, snow- and ice-laden 125-foot-tall grand fir tree, snapped and fell upon them.
Tim and Cheryl Owen were killed instantly. Jessie Owen, Jaime Mayer and Steven Mayer were seated in the middle and severely crushed. Jeremy Owen was in the rear. When Jeremy regained consciousness, his first thought was that everyone else had perished.
Later in the day, after the terrible scene was cleared and despite the danger, the State re-opened U.S. 2. That evening and the next day the trees continued to fall. A WSP officer twice requested that DOT close the roads. Each time they said no. Another tree fell within the same milepost as the Owen incident. This time, the tree struck a vehicle carrying four people including one who was pregnant. Only after this second major injury event, did the DOT close U.S. 2.
The State is generally not responsible for healthy trees falling and injuring innocent passersby. In this case, based upon casual inspection the tree did not appear to be rotten. It also was located outside of the required clear zone on the side of the roadway. However, the family claimed that the State should be responsible when it knows of extremely dangerous conditions that prevent its roadways from being reasonably safe for ordinary travel. In those situations, it has a duty to close its roads. This has been done regularly by the State in situations of avalanche or wild fire danger.
The State recognized that in this case, it could be found to have failed its duty to protect motorists by not closing a dangerous roadway. Though it maintained that other forces caused the incident, the State requested that the Owen family hold off on filing a lawsuit. The State instead requested that the parties participate in non-adversarial mediation.
The family was still reeling from the deaths of Tim and Cheryl Owen in addition to surviving their own catastrophic injuries. Despite receiving the best medical care possible, Jessie, Jaime and Steven have been left with major lifelong physical disabilities.
Past medical bills were in the several millions of dollars. Future medical and care expenses were projected to be even greater.
Preparation for the mediation took an entire year. Teresa Wakeen, a professional mediator, was selected to conduct the proceeding. Each side developed and explained their theory of the case. From a legal standpoint, there were no other cases where a governmental entity had been found liable for failing to close a road. The family pursued this case to make a point: it was not okay for WSDOT to leave the state highway open when Chelan County was closing its local roads because of the same dangers. The family wanted to ensure this would not happen again.
Ultimately, during the mediation, the State accepted that it was at risk to be found partially responsible for the incident. The family agreed to compromise their claims and accepted the State’s offer of $10 Million. The settlement money will be used to pay for past medical expenses and provide for the future needs of the survivors.
The family has issued this joint statement:
“From the moment the tree struck our car to this very day, we have been surrounded by friends, relatives, and even strangers who have done their best to help us. We can’t thank all of you enough.
The State acted humanely and compassionately towards us during the entire year we worked on the mediation. There were no accusations. There was no fighting. We were treated with dignity and respect, even though at times we agreed to disagree.
We hope that by financially acknowledging our loss, that the State will be more proactive in protecting the travelling public from known dangers. Temporarily closing a roadway may be an inconvenience. But a short delay is a small price to pay for the life of a loved one.”
The State’s team included executives from WSP, WSDOT and risk management. The team of Assistant Attorney Generals was led in the mediation process by AAG Gary Andrews. The family was represented by attorney Karen Koehler of Seattle law firm Stritmatter Kessler Whelan. Also assisting from the firm, were attorneys Ray Kahler, Dan Laurence, Paul Stritmatter and Garth Jones.