An Intercity Transit bus driver is accused of negligence in a lawsuit for allegedly failing to completely stop at a stop sign in Olympia on July 27, 2008, causing a crash that killed two people on a motorcycle.
Roger Smith, 42, of Tacoma, and Tammi Small, 44, of Olympia, suffered fatal injuries when their motorcycle collided with an Intercity Transit bus at Central Street Northeast and Ethridge Avenue Northeast in Olympia.
Smith, who was found facedown in the intersection, died at the scene. Small, who was found under the bus, died after being taken to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Both were wearing helmets; Small’s was found in the intersection.
Thurston County Coroner Gary Warnock found that “acute intoxication of methamphetamine” contributed to Smith’s death, and a police investigation concluded that Smith was speeding. Smith was driving the motorcycle.
Attorneys for the city and an Intercity Transit spokeswoman said in interviews that Smith was at fault.
But a lawsuit filed this month by Tacoma attorney Erik Ladenburg argues that bus driver Betty Bridges “never brought her bus to a stop before entering the intersection of Central Street and Ethridge Avenue,” and that her failure to stop caused the crash.
Bridges has married since the collision; her last name now is Weigelt. All court documents and police reports refer to her as Bridges.
The lawsuit alleges that while Bridges was driving on Central Street, she “slowed her vehicle down as she approached Ethridge Avenue, but began increasing her speed approximately nine feet before the intersection.”
In a phone interview Tuesday, Ladenburg said Smith’s having meth in his system is irrelevant to the question of whether Bridges caused the crash. He added that he would fight at trial to prevent a jury from hearing that Smith had meth in his system.
“Bus drivers are given enormous responsibility and are expected to follow all rules of the road,” Ladenburg said. “Whether it is a teenager on a bike, an 80-year-old grandmother or a father of two, a bus driver can’t fail to stop at a stop sign and kill people who have the right of way.”
Attorney Don Daniel, who is representing Olympia in the lawsuit, contended that methamphetamine intoxication could impair a driver’s judgment, slow his or her reaction time and increase the likelihood that a driver would act recklessly. All these factors have to be considered in determining whether Smith was at fault, he said.
Daniel added that if it can be shown that Smith’s methamphetamine intoxication contributed to more than 50 percent of the cause of his death, his estate has no right to damages under state law.
The Intercity Transit Authority, the City of Olympia and Bridges all are named as defendants in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Smith’s estate July 8.
The suit also faults the city for failing to properly maintain and trim the trees and shrubbery at Central Street and Ethridge Avenue “so as not to obstruct the view of oncoming or intersecting traffic.”
The police report detailing the investigation of the crash shows that Smith was driving with a suspended license.
The police report compiled by Olympia police officer Randall Wilson also states that Smith was speeding and “should have been able to avoid the collision if he was traveling at the posted 25 miles per hour speed limit.”
Wilson estimated in his report that Smith was traveling between 33 and 36 mph.
“For these reasons, I don’t believe there is a fail to yield the right of way violation on the part of Mrs. Bridges and no citation will be issued,” reads the police report.
The estimate of the motorcycle’s speed was calculated in part based on scrapes on the pavement indicating that Smith intentionally or unintentionally laid the bike down on its left side 70 to 75 feet before impact, Wilson’s report states.
The report also states that based on his review of surveillance video on the Intercity Transit bus, the bus failed to come to a complete stop before the collision.
“In watching the video surveillance from the bus, on initial view it appeared to me that the bus stops at the stop sign,” Wilson states in the report. “This stop appears to be very brief before the bus proceeds forward. After reviewing the video further and slowing the video down to 0.25 time and going frame by frame, it does not appear the bus completely ceases movement prior to going into the intersection and with each frame the foliage doesn’t ever stop moving.”
Wilson’s report notes that under Washington law, “stop” is defined as “complete cessation from movement.”
In his list of contributing factors, Wilson noted in his report that “Mrs. Bridges, the bus driver, should have moved more closely to where the two roads intersect to increase her sight down Ethridge Av. prior to entering the intersection.”
In a taped statement to Wilson, Bridges said she came to a complete stop and that she looked both ways before proceeding into the intersection.
“He just came out of nowhere,” she said of Smith.
Smith had bought the motorcycle the day before and had driven it to Olympia from Tacoma to visit his longtime girlfriend, Small. Smith is survived by two teenage children, a son and a daughter, Ladenburg said.
Small had been working as a hostess during special events at the historic Schmidt House in Tumwater. She is survived by two teenage sons.
Small’s estate filed a tort claim against Olympia and Intercity Transit after her death.
Olympia, acting through its insurer, paid a $25,000 settlement to Small’s estate to avoid a lawsuit, Daniel said Wednesday. Intercity Transit, also acting through its insurer, paid Small’s estate $300,000 to avoid a lawsuit, Intercity Transit spokeswoman Meg Kester said Thursday.
Small’s estate also has made a $4 million claim on Smith’s estate, according to a creditor’s claim filed in 2008 in King County Superior Court. According to the claim, “(b)oth the Intercity Transit Authority and the Estate of Roger Scott Smith are liable for damages owed to the Estate of Tammi Small.” Small’s claim is “contingent on a jury finding that the Estate of Roger Scott Smith is liable to the Estate of Tammi Small for damages,” court papers state.
Intercity Transit also paid Small’s family nearly $13,000 to cover her funeral expenses, Kester said.
Bridges still works as an Intercity Transit bus driver, Kester said, adding that Bridges has a good safety record and the crash was the result of “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
About eight months before the collision, Bridges was in a “relatively minor” bus collision with an automobile, Kester has said. No one was injured.
Bridges declined a request for comment, Kester said.
“Our driver has been devastated by the incident and would like to get beyond it,” she added.
Kester said vegetation at the southwest corner of the intersection obscured a portion of Bridges’s view.
“She could not see that motorcycle coming at all,” Kester said.
The 2008 crash was IT’s first fatal collision involving a bus in almost a decade.
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465 firstname.lastname@example.org