Will recession-starved Vancouver be held liable for a highly intoxicated driver who drove the wrong way on state Highway 14 in January and hit three cars, killing herself and injuring two people?
Brian and Lisa Gonsalves, the Camas couple who were badly injured by a drunken wrong-way driver on the freeway in Vancouver, have filed claims totaling $6 million against the city, the state of Washington and Clark County.
The claims, filed earlier this month, include copies of the Washington State Patrol accident report dealing with the 4:35 p.m. Jan. 9 head-on crash. Brian Gonsalves, a businessman, had been driving the couple’s Acura sedan west approaching Grand Boulevard. He was on a “date night” with his wife that was to include dinner and a hockey game.
Sheila M. Walls, 29, was driving east in the westbound lanes when she crashed her Honda Accord into the Gonsalves’ car and two others. Walls died in the crash. Her blood alcohol level was 0.20, more than twice the legal DUI threshold of 0.08, state troopers said later.
Troopers have said it’s possible that Walls, who had left a large memorial party at The Hilton Vancouver Washington and Esther Short Park, blundered onto Highway 14 at its offramp for westbound drivers onto C Street in downtown Vancouver. That’s what a trucker told troopers he saw.
A similar crash happened there on July 16, as a Vancouver police officer watched another allegedly impaired wrong-way driver head up the offramp at C Street and collide with another vehicle. Several people were hurt.
Lisa Gonsalves later filed a request with the Washington Department of Transportation, asking officials to consider ways of making it less likely that drivers will mistakenly enter the highway the wrong way at C Street.
In response to the crashes, city and state transportation officials have investigated the traffic signs and other controls on C Street by the offramp, and have said the traffic controls meet state and federal standards.
But in an update early this month, state and city officials said they were looking into additional ways to deter wrong-way drivers there.
Asked late this month whether officials had reached any decisions about C Street, city public works spokeswoman Loretta Callahan said “this is now a legal matter” and advised The Columbian to contact Assistant City Attorney Dan Lloyd.
The Gonsalves’ tort claim, filed about two weeks ago, is a legal prerequisite to suing a government entity, Lloyd said.
The claim mentions the Gonvalves’ injuries in the crash and asks for $2 million for the husband and $4 million for the wife.
Brian Gonsalves’ right heel was shattered in 20 places, from taking the impact while jammed against the brake pedal, he said.
Lisa Gonsalves was critically injured with neck, spine, wrist and abdominal injuries, state troopers and hospital officials said at the time.
Internal injuries and bleeding meant that part of her small intestine had to be removed. One of her vertebrae in her mid-back was shattered and one in her neck was cracked. Her collarbone and one wrist were broken, and she was covered in bruises, her husband said.
The Gonsalveses told The Columbian early this month that their medical costs, some covered by insurance and some not, totaled more than $300,000 — and that several months later they still have surgeons’ metalware in their bodies and suffer pain from their injuries.
Lloyd said transportation officials make roads as safe as possible, but there are limits what they can do when drunken drivers are involved.
“What caused this crash was alcohol,” Lloyd said in response to the claim. “It is really tragic that Ms. Walls drank too much and got behind the wheel. It’s tragic what happened to (the Gonsalveses), but the responsibility lies with Ms. Walls.”
As for C Street, Lloyd said: “It’s well-signed. There are numerous warnings to drivers saying, ‘This is the wrong way, do not enter.’ Sober people don’t have problems with it.”
Lloyd said city officials are not required to make any legal response to the claim. He said the Gonsalveses must wait 60 days after filing the claim before filing a lawsuit in court.
Before the tort claim was filed, officials said they were considering these possible changes:
• More signs and refreshed markings.
• Moving where C Street goes from one-way to two-way to a point north of Seventh Street.
• Installing large, solar-powered flashing red lights on wrong-way warning signs.