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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Before 6 died in Tacoma wreck, officials knew intersection was deadly, lawsuit claims

By Shea Johnson (Tacoma) News Tribune

TACOMA – Washington state and local officials knew of dangers posed by a Tacoma intersection, and the state studied and discussed re-designing it years before six people were killed in a wreck at the crossing last July, according to a wrongful death lawsuit.

The suit, filed June 4 in Pierce County Superior Court by the parents of one of the victims, alleges that the State Route 509 and Alexander Avenue intersection could have been safer if not for inaction. It accused the Washington state Department of Transportation, the city of Tacoma and the Port of Tacoma of failing to take adequate precautions.

“They knew something had to get done,” attorney Darrell Cochran, who’s representing the plaintiff, told the News Tribune.

Six young people from Arizona died July 16 after a Kia Forte – in which they were traveling with a seventh person – ran a red light on southbound Alexander Avenue and was struck by a BMW SUV that had driven through a yellow light on the eastbound highway, authorities said. The seventh person suffered serious injuries. It was the state’s deadliest crash in more than two decades.

All of the Kia’s occupants, who were in Tacoma for an Amway convention, were between 19 and 25 years old. Cerra Corner, 19, whose parents filed the lawsuit, was one of five backseat passengers in the car. The State Patrol said that no one in the backseat was wearing a seat belt.

Spokespersons for WSDOT, the city and Port of Tacoma declined to comment on the pending litigation.

The crash, which prosecutors concluded was not criminal, was representative of the very issues that officials had known about as far back as three years earlier, according to the lawsuit.

State Route 509 crosses Alexander Avenue at two intersections: One for eastbound traffic on the highway and another for westbound traffic. The intersections are within roughly 50 yards of each other.

The lawsuit cited an Intersection Control Evaluation published by WSDOT in May 2020. The document reported that there had been 107 incidents between 2013 and 2018 at the two signalized intersections. The incidents resulted in one serious injury and 37 possible minor ones, the complaint said.

In the evaluation, WSDOT noted that driver inattention and running a red light were main contributing factors in those incidents, with speed being playing a larger role in injury-related wrecks, the suit said.

At the moment of impact in the July crash, the Kia was traveling between 36 and 41 mph, according to prosecutors. Evidence showed it was steadily accelerating and didn’t break prior to the wreck. The BMW was going between 50 to 66 mph at impact, and vehicle data showed its speed was 80 mph five seconds before the collision, prosecutors said.

The speed limit on the highway is 50 mph.

Hints of change

Citing WSDOT’s evaluation, the lawsuit said that the agency had studied the feasibility of other builds at the intersection, including a roundabout, which the agency reportedly noted would be expected to noticeably reduce fatal and injury crashes compared to a signal.

Five months later, the issue of vehicles running red lights at the intersection reemerged. A WSDOT traffic engineer suggested to two other agency employees in an email that WSDOT take “another look” at a potential roundabout to slow drivers coming into both intersections, according to a copy of the correspondence attached in the lawsuit.

WSDOT, the city and port then discussed safety improvements at the intersections in November 2020, the legal complaint said. Those talks included the need for a Prepare to Stop When Flashing (PTSWF) sign and led to a recommendation to implement a signal warning sign on State Route 509.

“Signal ahead” signs were installed on the eastbound highway, approximately 1,000 feet before the intersection, in the month after the crash, WSDOT spokesperson Kris Olsen said.

In a December 2020 email, a second WSDOT traffic engineer documented there had been several crashes at the Alexander Avenue intersection since 2015 due to vehicles running red lights and sought feedback on the possibility of a PTSWF system, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint noted that there were 99 reported crashes from 2018 to 2022 on state Route 509 in the immediate area surrounding the two intersections. One collision was fatal, and 35 had at least one contributing factor of “Disregard Traffic Sign and signal or Disregard Stop and Go Light,” the suit said.

“Despite years of notice that the Alexander Avenue intersection presented with alarmingly high instances of red light running, that a PTSWF sign should be implemented, and that alternative designs could have mitigated the likelihood of fatal collisions, Defendants did not take adequate precautions with the design, routine maintenance, repair, construction and safe operation of the intersection located at state Route 509 and Alexander Avenue,” the suit claimed.

The complaint also named other defendants: the driver of the BMW and an unidentified personal representative for the estate of the Kia’s driver killed in the crash. Cochran said their inclusion was related to legal strategy.

In a statement to law enforcement after the crash, the BMW’s driver said he had a green light when he went through the intersection en route to church with his wife, the News Tribune previously reported. The driver also said he braked when he saw the Kia.

An Arizona resident who is believed to have rented the Kia, because the driver and other occupants were under the legal age limit to do so, is also a named defendant. That individual did not have an attorney listed in court records Monday.

The suit is seeking a jury trial, legal fees and unspecified damages to be determined at trial.

In September, the News Tribune reported that $20 million claims against the city and state – a precursor to a lawsuit – had been filed by the mother of crash victim, Javan Runnels. No suit has been brought forward on that matter in the county’s Superior Court, records show. The claims similarly alleged flaws in road design and general safety.

Meanwhile, the two intersections on Alexander Avenue are expected to be reworked as part of WSDOT’s $376 million 167 Completion Project.

The intersections are planned to be reduced to one crossing controlled by a single set of traffic lights. Olsen said that PTSWF signs will replace “signal ahead” signs and be placed in both directions of state Route 509. Flashing beacons on the signs will activate as the traffic signal prepares to change from green to yellow.

The work is scheduled to be done in 2026.