The Washington State Department of Transportation failed to fix a dangerously designed roadway at the intersection of U.S. Highway 101 and Lynch Road near Shelton, according to a lawsuit, and now it must pay an Olympia man $2 million after he was seriously injured there in 2006.
John Lancaster, 22, of Olympia almost died during an April 25, 2006, crash as he was headed north on his motorcycle on U.S. 101. A car that was attempting to turn left from Lynch Road into U.S. 101’s southbound lanes cut him off, and Lancaster’s motorcycle smacked into the driver’s side of the vehicle.
More than four years after the crash, Lancaster can’t use his right arm, and he has limited use of his left hand.
DOT on Monday agreed to pay $2 million to settle a civil lawsuit filed on behalf of Lancaster by Tacoma attorney Shawn Briggs. The lawsuit alleged that DOT failed to fix the intersection, despite an April 2001 DOT study that recommended the closure of the left-turn lane from Lynch Road onto U.S. 101.
During an interview in late 2006, Lancaster said his hospital bills totalled more than $600,000. After the crash, Lancaster “flatlined” for three minutes before a helicopter flew him to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
“I couldn’t walk for two months,” Lancaster said in 2006.
Briggs said it’s not clear why DOT has failed to fix the intersection since the 2001 study.
“It’s still not been fixed, Briggs said. “If they had done that, then John Lancaster would never have been hurt.”
Robert Thuring, engineer for Mason County Public Works, said there is a lot of local pressure to try to fix the intersection. Off the top of his head, Thuring said he can think of at least one fatal crash at the intersection in the last several years.
“There’s some real concerns about that intersection,” Thuring said. “It’s a scary intersection to deal with.”
Briggs contended that the cost of a fix is “minimal” – as low as $50,000.
Briggs said an investigation by his office has revealed that there have been 55 collisions at the intersection since 1996, including two fatalities.
However, Thuring said the projected cost is much higher than that.
Years before Lancaster was injured, the Mason County fire chief had advocated for a fix to the road due to the high number of collisions there, Briggs said. Taylor Shellfish has built its own road in the area so its trucks won’t have to navigate the intersection, and Taylor Shellfish and the Squaxin Island Tribe both have offered to donate land for a safer route, he added.
Thuring said that the intersection is DOT’s right of way, but Mason County has taken over the authority for redesigning and replacing the intersection because DOT does not have enough staff. Mason County is acting as the design and construction agent for the still uncompleted project for DOT, he said.
Thuring said DOT has identified many problem intersections across the state, including the one at Lynch Road and U.S. 101, but “this one just hasn’t floated up to the top of the heap to be corrected.”
In 2006 or 2007, the state Legislature authorized $1 million to replace the intersection with a frontage road that would run parallel to U.S. 101, but that wasn’t enough money to complete the project, Thuring said. Thuring added that the county is about to begin right of way acquisition for a reconstruction project at the intersection, but all the money necessary to complete the project isn’t there.
“We’re moving forward to buy the right of way in anticipation that the Legislature would fund the project,” Thuring said.
Construction of a frontage road to replace the intersection is not feasible until there is more money – authorized either by the state Legislature or the federal government, Thuring said.
The Squaxin Island Tribe is trying to get money authorized by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs for the project, and Mason County leaders are putting pressure on Washington’s congressional delegation for the project, Thuring said.
Since 1998, DOT has made stop gap improvements at the intersection to make it less dangerous, Steve Bennett, a DOT spokesman said Monday. Those improvements have included decreasing the speed limit on U.S. 101 from 60 to 50 miles per hour, eliminating turning points in the intersection and installing shoulder rumble stops in the roadway, he said.
But Briggs said Monday that DOT had the money to complete a reconstruction project in the intersection prior to Lancaster’s motorcycle crash, and they didn’t do it.
“The state just dropped the ball,” Briggs said.
Briggs called Lancaster a “heroic young man” who doesn’t want to see others get injured.
In an interview in late 2006, Lancaster’s foster mother, Barbara Kelly of Shelton, said the entire family thought Lancaster was going to die after the crash. He was in a coma and on life support for three weeks after the crash.
“Harborview called and said he was in really bad shape,” Kelly said of the time immediately after the crash. “It was so bad that when we were in there, my mother donated an extra burial plot. We were gonna chip in and pay for his funeral – that’s how bad he was. That he’s still here is a miracle.”
Jeremy Pawloski: 360-754-5465 firstname.lastname@example.org