Likely legal battles ahead for Intercity Transit

Intercity Transit could be sued as a result of a July 27 collision involving one of its buses that killed two people.

Lawyers for the estate of Tammi Small and the son of Roger Smith said they will file claims for damages with Intercity Transit. The transit agency has 60 days to resolve claims before plaintiffs can sue. Olympia also could be pulled into a lawsuit. But Connie Cobb, the city's claims manager, said she has not heard from representatives of Small or Smith.

Bill Coats of Bellingham, representing the Small estate, said the IT bus driver, Betty J. Bridges, was negligent because she failed to yield and did not stop at the stop sign. "Small was a passenger on the vehicle. ... I would be very surprised if anyone claimed that she was at fault for what happened," Coats said.

Celia Rivera, an Olympia lawyer hired by Smith's son, said he will file a claim for the loss of his father, but she declined to describe the basis of the claim.

The lawyer representing Smith's estate didn't return phone calls.

Intercity Transit denies any wrongdoing and continues its internal investigation.

"The evidence from numerous investigations verifies that excessive speed was the major factor in this tragic accident," Meg Kester, a spokeswoman for Intercity Transit, said in an e-mail. "Suggestion that the transit driver was at fault has not been proven nor substantiated. In fact, details of the incident suggest otherwise."

Officer Randy Wilson, the police department's lead investigator, said Smith was traveling at least eight to 11 mph over the speed limit, and the crash could have been avoided if he had kept to 25 mph. Wilson said Bridges' actions were not a "direct cause" of the collision.

However, at least three experts have been hired to reconstruct the collision for their clients, and their conclusions could differ from Wilson's.

Insurers for the transit agency and Olympia have hired experts to reconstruct the collision. Rivera said she's working with the expert hired by the Smith estate, and Coats said the Small estate also might hire an expert.

Lawyers for the prospective plaintiffs say Intercity Transit could blame Olympia for allowing vegetation to become overgrown. Tree and shrub limbs obstructed the view of the bus driver, the police report says.

The limbs were in the public right-of-way, but city law requires the property owner to cut back trees and shrubs to the edge of the street.

A city crew cut back the tree and shrub limbs in early August, after the collision, said Randy Wesselman, the city's transportation, engineering and planning manager. The city does mow the right-of-way east of Ethridge, but not to the west, he added.

The property owners did not respond to a message.

Wesselman is preparing a report on the sight distance; he said he found it met city standards before the vegetation was cut. The minimum sight distance on a street posted with a 25 mph speed limit is 155 feet. But he declined to release a copy of his report because it wasn't finished.

Wilson took measurements on Central Street using a radar gun. He calculated Bridges could see about 100 feet, and she would have increased that distance to about 144 feet if she had moved forward 9 feet — still short of Ethridge Avenue.