Oregon Highway Death Settlement Illustrates Breadth of Law

Controversy over a $1.45 million settlement between the state and the families of two state employees who died in an Oregon highway crash in 2014 has caused some to lose sight of the real importance of the case. As The Oregonian reported over the weekend, the settlement was relatively large by Oregon standards, but, as lawyers consulted by the newspaper noted, that may be because “the (victims’) estates had a strong case against the state.”

According to the newspaper the couple, both employees of the Oregon State Hospital, died in the fall of 2014 “when a pickup veered across I-5 and hit… (their) 1993 Nissan Sentra head-on. From a legal perspective there were two especially important points to note about this Oregon wrongful death case. The first is something relatively rare – a successful lawsuit focused mainly on faulty road design. The second is the way that this incident demonstrates the careful weighing of responsibility our courts are called on to make in cases like this.

As The Oregonian writes, the argument that the man and woman’s deaths were the result mainly of faulty road design was particularly strong. “In the month after their deaths, an investigation by The Oregonian found that the Oregon Department of Transportation had delayed the installation of a median cable barrier on that 5-mile stretch of freeway despite public recognition of the need for it dating back to 1996.” Had a proper cable barrier been in place there is a strong possibility that the pickup would never have been able to cross all the way into the opposite lane.

Also intriguing is the success that attorneys and the courts had in getting some of the other parties involved in the action to acknowledge their individual degrees of responsibility. “The pickup driver… agreed this spring to pay $100,000 to each of their estates. And an oil tanker truck company – whose driver was accused of speeding and splashing excessive rainwater on the pickup, causing it to veer into the Nissan” also agreed to pay damages: $200,000 to the driver’s estate and $100,000 to the passenger’s, according to the newspaper.

As a Portland attorney focusing on wrongful death cases and car accidents I am glad to see that this case has been resolved in a way that acknowledges the responsibility of each party involved. Perhaps most importantly, it serves as a reminder to the state government that there are real, human costs to a failure to maintain our roads properly. Only if that message is heard loud and clear in Salem will we truly be able to say that justice has been done.

 

The Oregonian: Amanda Fritz settlement over husband’s death is unusual, but not the largest