Should a man accused of causing a fatal car crash on state Highway 503 near Battle Ground be convicted of a crime, or should it be a matter for the civil courts?
This is the question attorneys posed to jurors Tuesday morning during opening statements in Dean Imokawa’s vehicular homicide trial in Clark County Superior Court.
Imokawa, 47, is also charged with vehicular assault and reckless driving stemming from the April 2, 2015, crash that the prosecution argues resulted in the death of 86-year-old Eleanor Tapani of Battle Ground.
“We assume certain duties, responsibilities as a driver on public roads,” Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kasey Vu said. “When we fail and our conduct is such that it rises to the level of a crime, we have the justice system … to handle it.”
The crash, which was investigated by the Washington State Patrol, sent three people to the hospital, including Imokawa. Tapani died the following day from her injuries.
Imokawa’s defense attorney, Steve Thayer, told the jury that there are two sides to every story. He argued it’s not a crime to make an error in judgment when merging into a lane, and he said the wrong driver was on trial.
“We have the civil court system to sort out liability. This was an accident, not a crime,” Thayer said.
Vu told the jury that Imokawa was driving north on the highway in a 2006 GMC pickup shortly before 9:30 a.m. when he attempted to pass a Land Rover he was traveling behind in the left lane. Imokawa used the right lane to pass the vehicle and then merged back into the left lane on the Salmon Creek bridge. However, his pickup struck the front right corner of the Land Rover, driven by Nicholas Grier of Battle Ground. Both vehicles lost control, crossed the median and entered the southbound lanes, where Imokawa’s pickup was struck by a Kia Sorento.
The driver of the Kia, Linda Dallum of Battle Ground and her passenger, Tapani, crashed broadside into the pickup going 50 to 60 mph, Vu said. They were transported to PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center in Vancouver, court records show.
“They had no chance. There was no time to react,” Vu said.
Dallum suffered multiple fractured ribs and fractures to her right ankle, foot and kneecap. Tapani’s death was caused by multiple blunt-force injuries, according to a probable cause affidavit. Imokawa also was treated at PeaceHealth and released. Grier was not injured. Vu said Dallum was in a wheelchair for six months after the crash.
Data from Imokawa’s pickup recorded his speed at 68 mph prior to his airbag deploying. The posted speed limit in that area is 55 mph, according to court records.
One witness told investigators that Imokawa had used the right lane to pass another motorist before the collision, Vu said.
Grier said Imokawa was following him too closely and at times was only a few feet behind him. Several witnesses said it did not appear that Imokawa had enough room to make a successful lane change in front of Grier, Vu told the jury.
Thayer argued that Grier was traveling below the speed limit in the left lane and had refused to let Imokawa pass him. Imokawa turned on his headlights to indicate that he wanted to pass Grier, but he still refused to move over and “brake-checked” Imokawa, waving him off.
When Imokawa moved to the right lane to pass Grier, he had enough room to merge, Thayer said, but Grier sped up, closing the gap and causing the collision. He said the evidence will show that the Land Rover struck the truck in the left lane, and there were no skid marks indicating the vehicle braked.
Imokawa was not traveling at an extraordinary speed, Thayer said, considering he was attempting to pass another vehicle and was traveling downhill.
The trial continues today with witness testimony.