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Sunday, December 3, 2023
Dec. 3, 2023

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$20M claims against Tacoma, WSDOT say ‘dangerous’ road design led to fatal crash

Six people were killed in July 16 accident on state Route 509


Attorneys representing the mother of one of six young people killed in a car crash on Tacoma’s Tideflats filed claims Thursday with the city and the state of Washington for $20 million.

The claims, which are precursors to a lawsuit, allege that the “dangerous” design of the intersection of Alexander Avenue and state Route 509 allowed the wreck to occur, according to a statement from attorneys representing Lisa Campbell, the mother of 22-year-old Javan Runnels.

Runnels was one of six people visiting Washington from Arizona for an Amway convention at the Tacoma Dome. The morning of July 16, Runnels, Felix Y. Begay, Cerra Corner, Lisa Esparza, Calsie Sockyma, Erick Tsosie and another man were in a Kia Forte driving south on Alexander Avenue when it went through the intersection and was T-boned by an SUV traveling north on the state highway.

Five of the Kia’s seven occupants died at the scene, according to the Washington State Patrol, and one died either at a hospital or en route. One man in the Kia survived, and the two people in the SUV reportedly suffered cuts and bruises.

Runnels’ mother is represented by Herrmann Law Group, a personal injury firm with offices in Seattle and Tacoma. Her claim against the state names the Washington State Department of Transportation as the agency responsible for the damages, and it alleges that deficient road design, inadequate traffic-control measures and separation of vehicles, and a lack of warning about the intersection for approaching vehicles caused the injuries. The second claim, submitted to the city of Tacoma, makes similar allegations.

Both claims note that the Washington State Patrol’s investigation of the wreck is pending completion. Campbell’s attorneys said in a statement that they’re looking forward to the agency’s determinations, but had the intersection been better designed, the collision wouldn’t have occurred.

“We have no doubt that the Washington State Patrol is doing their best to investigate it as accurately and swiftly as possible,” the attorneys’ statement reads. “In the meantime, Javan’s mother, Lisa Campbell has to not only suffer the loss of her beloved child but has to suffer the added anguish of delay in learning the facts of Javan’s cause of death, whether he suffered, and whether he asked for his mother before he died.”

Cara Mitchell, a WSDOT communications manager, said she couldn’t comment on an open tort claim. She said the government agency shares the family’s grief over the loss of a loved one. Maria Lee, a spokesperson for the city of Tacoma, said the city is reviewing a copy of the claim and is working to determine its next steps.

“Our deepest condolences go out to the families of the individuals who died on State Route 509,” Lee said in an emailed statement.

Initial reports from the State Patrol found the cause of the collision was failure to stop for a red light, and speed was a factor, but it’s unclear who was at fault. Detectives have said impairment from drugs or alcohol is not thought to have been a factor.

The wreck was the deadliest Washington has seen in 22 years, according to data from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. Attorneys said residents familiar with the intersection are aware of its dangers and have called for changes, but drivers not as familiar with it are often unaware of the risks.

A new interchange is planned to eventually replace the Alexander Avenue and State Route 509 intersection as part of the Department of Transportation’s $367 million 167 Completion Project. It will create a 2-mile-long tolled expressway connecting the Port of Tacoma with State Route 167. Construction began in July last year, and the improvements — which include three new interchanges — are expected to be complete by fall 2026.

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