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Drivers sue ODOT after crashing vehicles

TIMES FILE PHOTO - A lawsuit filed this week against the Oregon Department of Transportation claimed that a joint along the Interstate 5 flyover with Highway 217 is slowly coming apart, which caused several crashes in 2014.Two dozen people have filed a joint lawsuit against the Oregon Department of Transportation based on claims that they crashed their cars along the Interstate 5/Highway 217 flyover nearly two years ago.

The more than $2 million lawsuit was filed Friday in Multnomah County Circuit Court, alleging that ODOT and Alaskan construction company Kiewit Corp. were negligent when they built the interchange between Interstate 5 and Highway 217.

The 14 people who filed the lawsuit were involved in separate crashes on the flyover between April and June 2014. In May of that year, four crashes occurred on the same day.

The crashes puzzled ODOT officials, who said they weren't sure what was causing the sudden increase in accidents along the flyover.

Each of the drivers in the lawsuit recounts the same basic story: Their vehicles were traveling northbound along Interstate 5, but the drivers lost control of their vehicles on the flyover that connects the interstate to Highway 217.

One man, Benjamon Watts, claimed his vehicle fishtailed, then flipped onto its side and crashed against the concrete wall.

Watts suffered a closed head injury, lost consciousness for five hours, fractured his spine and sternum, and continues to suffer from memory loss and anxiety, according to the lawsuit.

The $2,030,000 lawsuit alleges negligent design and construction of the ramp, which was built in 2001. The lawsuit claimed that the ramp was built at too severe an angle to safely drive across, especially in the rain, and was built improperly, causing a tongue-and-groove joint which connects two segments of the flyover to come apart.

“Over time, this expansion joint tended to separate and the steel ‘fingers’ became misaligned, creating a surface which was uneven and dangerous to vehicular traffic, particularly when wet,” the lawsuit reads.

ODOT has been aware of the raised joint for years and crews have worked to grind the joint back into place, according to the agency.

ODOT inspectors first suspected the joint as the cause of the crashes and investigated back in 2014, but then ruled it out as a possibility.

In a statement, Kiewit, which built the overpass, said that the project was completed without problems.

“Kiewit completed this project in 2001 and a thorough inspection confirmed that all contract requirements were met,” the company said. “We are reviewing the complaint, but cannot further discuss this pending legal issue.”

ODOT officials declined to comment for this article, saying that they could not discuss the lawsuit, but told Pamplin Media Group back in 2014 that testing showed that the ramp’s construction likely wasn’t to blame.

“There’s a good bump at the joint, no one is trying to deny the joint is raised, but it is within engineering tolerances,” Dave Thompson, a spokesman with ODOT, told Pamplin Media Group in 2014. “By itself, it wouldn’t be a source of issue if you were driving the speed limit.”

Thompson said at the time that it wasn’t clear if the exact cause of the crashes would ever be found.

“Honestly, I’m afraid we might come to the conclusion that there is nothing that we can determine and everyone will call us liars because we are being sued,” Thompson said. “If we find that we can do anything to fix or improve with the road, we will.”

After the crashes, road crews re-sealed the road and installed large, permanent electronic warning signs installed large, permanent electronic warning signs at the ramp to alert drivers to the 35-mile-per-hour speed zone.

Officials said at the time that the crashes had likely been caused by a combination of factors, including heavy rains and speeding. The ramp is listed as a 35-mile-per-hour zone.

“Anytime that you see a ramp speed that is significantly lower than the highway that you are on, you know something different is coming up,” spokesman Don Hamilton said in 2014. “That is a good reason to slow down.”

Thompson told Pamplin Media Group this week that although he couldn’t comment on the litigation, most of the crashes that have occurred along the flyover over the past two years had been attributed to speeding.

“We said at the time of those crashes that if people drive the posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour, the ramp is safe,” Thompson said.

The lawsuit was filed by Portland attorney Gregory Kafoury, of Kafoury & McDougal.

The Times’ news partner KOIN 6 News contributed to this report.

By Miles Vance
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