A jury decided Monday that Spokane County must pay $7.5 million to a woman left paralyzed in a motorcycle accident at an intersection she said was dangerous.
Madelynn Tapken also has memory problems and other issues after sustaining a severe head injury in the crash. She was 20 years old at the time of the accident in September 2011.
“She’s got a long road ahead of her,” said her attorney, Roger Felice. “We had a very smart jury and a good trial judge.”
The county is evaluating whether to appeal the verdict, said Director of Risk Management Steve Bartel.
Tapken was on the back of a motorcycle driven by Conrad Malinak going from Fairfield to Waverly on Prairie View Road, which has a speed limit of 45 miles per hour. Just outside Waverly the road forks into the “Waverly Y.” There was a “yield ahead” sign 800 feet from the intersection and two yield signs at the intersections for drivers veering left and right.
During the trial, county employees testified that the maximum safe speed for the curve at the intersection is 20 mph, but there are no warning signs to this effect, Felice said. In addition, a large hawthorn bush blocked Malinak’s view of the sharpness of the curve to the right, Felice said.
Despite slowing down to between 30 and 35 mph, Malinak still crashed. “It wasn’t sufficient enough to make the curve,” Felice said. “There was just a failure to warn.”
The lawsuit alleged there were about two dozen single-car crashes at the intersection prior to 2011, but only three were allowed to be discussed during the three-week trial.
Since the crash, the county has cut back the hawthorn bush and installed more warning signs, Felice said. “This was an inexpensive, no-brainer fix,” he said.
Bartel acknowledged more signs had been put up and said the bush was trimmed back as it occasionally is. “That in itself had nothing to do with the accident,” he said.
He said he doesn’t believe the bush caused a line-of-sight issue for the road, but said it did create an issue with the visibility of the yield sign at the intersection.
Bartel said it was expected that drivers who saw the “yield ahead” sign would slow down and be going a safe enough speed to get around the curve.
“We felt the yield ahead sign was proper warning,” he said. “It’s a different kind of intersection, but it was created more than 100 years ago in a rural area,” he said.
He said he believed Malinak should bear more responsibility for causing the crash, which the jury set at 30 percent. “He’d traveled that route before,” Bartel said. “He was familiar with the intersection.”
Since Malinak was declared partially at fault, normally he would be expected to pay 30 percent of the $12.5 million total awarded to Tapken. But Felice said he doesn’t believe Malinak has any assets and his client likely won’t see any money from Malinak. The $7.5 million the county was ordered to pay is its share of the total verdict.