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Lawsuit over Battle Ground bus stop alleges negligence

Crashes took one student’s life, cost another his leg

By , Columbian Local News Editor
3 Photos
Northeast 82nd Avenue in Battle Ground was blocked the morning of Oct. 19 after a minivan struck and killed 11-year-old Elizabeth Smith near Northeast 289th Street. A school bus stop located at the intersection of 82nd Avenue and 289th Street has been the scene of two crashes involving students.
Northeast 82nd Avenue in Battle Ground was blocked the morning of Oct. 19 after a minivan struck and killed 11-year-old Elizabeth Smith near Northeast 289th Street. A school bus stop located at the intersection of 82nd Avenue and 289th Street has been the scene of two crashes involving students. (Ariane Kunze/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

A lawsuit was filed Tuesday against Battle Ground Public Schools, Clark County Public Works, the school district’s contracted bus company and the motorists who struck two students near a school bus stop on Northeast 82nd Avenue in Battle Ground — costing one child her life and the other his right leg.

Battle Ground’s Justin Carey, 20, and Jill Sasser, the personal representative for Elizabeth Smith, who was 11 years old when she was killed, are listed as the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit — filed in Clark County Superior Court by Vancouver attorney Scott Edwards and Seattle attorney David Roosa — does not state how much the plaintiffs are seeking in damages. However, tort claims filed in May, which typically indicate the intent to sue, sought $20 million each.

“This case arises out of the horrifying death of one student and permanent disfigurement and loss-of-limb of another,” the suit states.

Both Carey and Elizabeth were struck in separate incidents while waiting at the school bus stop near the corner of Northeast 289th Street and 82nd Avenue.

The suit alleges that the intersection where the bus stop is located is “known by the community to be dangerous.”

There are no traffic lights or stop signs for northbound or southbound traffic. There’s a narrow shoulder and steep ditch on each side of 82nd Avenue. The posted speed limit is 50 mph, the suit states, though vehicles are known to exceed the speed limit.

The bus stop is located on the slope of a blind hill, with limited sight line of the bus stop for southbound traffic and limited ability for students or vehicles waiting at the bus stop to see approaching southbound vehicles, according to the lawsuit.

Carey, then 16, was waiting at the bus stop on the morning of June 10, 2013, when a Nissan Altima traveling south veered off the road and struck him. He was thrown more than 80 feet and landed in some nearby bushes. The impact fractured both of his legs and severed an artery in his right leg, later leading to the amputation of the lower half of that leg.

In February, a Superior Court jury, found that the driver, Shaun Johnson, 50, was under the influence of methamphetamine when she struck Carey. She was sentenced to three years in prison. Johnson is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit for alleged negligence.

Elizabeth, a student at Daybreak Primary/Middle School, was struck and killed Oct. 19. The suit states that she had crossed 82nd Avenue to talk with some friends who were waiting for the bus on the other side of the street. And when she crossed back to her side, a minivan traveling south struck her, throwing her into the ditch. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

The driver, Dennis Gene Lemke, then 76, of La Center, cooperated with the crash investigation, which was later sent to the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for review. To date, no criminal charges have been filed against him. The suit also lists Lemke for alleged negligence.

The plaintiffs argue that the school district, its former and current bus companies — Petermann Northwest and Cascade Student Transportation, respectively — and the county were negligent because they failed to provide safe transportation for students.

Under their contracts, the bus companies were responsible for proposing bus routes and stop locations, the suit said, and the school district gave final approval.

The school district and bus company never told students they should stand back farther from the road and did not provide a marked waiting area for students, who were asked to wait on either side of the road depending on where they lived, the suit states.

“The condition of the roadway, the proximity of the bus stop to the roadway, and the proximity of the students to each other as they waited on separate sides of the street created a dangerous condition where students could be foreseeably harmed by fast-moving and difficult-to-see traffic,” according to the suit.

Neither the school district nor bus companies improved student safety by rerouting buses or designating a safe spot for children to wait, the suit said.

The lawsuit also alleges that the county never did anything to improve the intersection.

“As a result of the county’s negligence, numerous vehicle collisions (and many near-miss events) occurred at the intersection in question prior to the injuries to the plaintiffs in this action,” the suit states.

Battle Ground school district spokeswoman Rita Sanders said Wednesday that the district had not yet received the lawsuit and said when it does, the case will be handled through its insurance company.

A phone call to the local office for Cascade Student Transportation was not returned Wednesday.

Clark County Public Works spokesman Jeff Mize deferred to the prosecuting attorney’s office for comment. Efforts to reach Chief Civil Deputy Prosecutor Chris Horne on Wednesday afternoon were unsuccessful.

The plaintiffs are seeking a judgment of liability against the defendants, as well as economic and non-economic damages and attorneys’ fees.