Mercer Island settles landmark I-90 Trail crash lawsuit

Note: Several are bike stories fell through the cracks during the election craziness. This is one of them. We’re working to play catch-up now that the dust is settling. If you think we missed something big recently, email tom@seattlebikeblog.com.

Photo of Susan from an Outdoors for All video (watch below)

Photo of Susan from an Outdoors for All video (watch below)

The very drawn-out legal battle between Mercer Island and Susan Camicia is finally over. And though you may not know who she is, everyone who rides a bike in Washington State owes her a huge debt of gratitude.

Nine years ago, Camicia was biking on the I-90 Trail when she swerved to avoid some park-and-ride construction fencing that was sticking out into the trail. In her attempt to avoid the hazard, she struck a wooden bollard. Her neck broke in the crash, leaving her paralyzed.

The City of Mercer Island settled with Camicia for $6.95 million in October (the city’s insurance will cover it), according to the Mercer Island Reporter. In a statement, the city stated that safety is a priority:

The safety of bicyclists and all trail users is of utmost importance to the City: the I-90 Trail carries tens of thousands of users every year across Mercer Island without incident. Fortunately, no other I-90 Trail injuries of this scale have occurred since this one, and the City strives to maintain that record of safety.

But in making their statement, the city also acknowledges that the trail is, indeed, a transportation facility. But this is only because Camicia fought the city all the way to the state Supreme Court, which made a vital ruling (PDF) in her favor that could protect the legal rights of people biking on trails all over the state.

Mercer Island originally tried to get summary judgment to throw out Camicia’s claim by hiding behind “recreational immunity.” Basically, this is an important rule that allows people to do all kinds of potentially dangerous recreational activities in free-to-use public park land without the public entities being held liable for injuries. Imagine, for example, if someone could sue the government for slipping in some mud while hiking in the woods.

But the I-90 Trail is not just a park for recreation. It is a transportation facility, and as the city notes in its press release, it “carries tens of thousands of users across Mercer Island every year.” Like roads and sidewalks, government entities that own trails should be on the hook for unsafe conditions that cause injuries. Otherwise, governments may not have an incentive to maintain safe trail conditions if they don’t want to. And people who crash due to government neglect would not have a way to file a clam to cover their bills and assist with potential lifelong costs.

That’s why everyone who bikes in this state owes Susan Camicia a debt of gratitude. Trails are part of the transportation system, we all know this. Now, because of her case, government entities trying to defeat such claims can’t just toss them by saying it happened in a park. They have to prove in court that the trail in question really is a recreational facility, not a transportation facility. And that’s a big deal.

You can watch her tell her story in this touching Outdoors for All video from 2008:

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14 Responses to Mercer Island settles landmark I-90 Trail crash lawsuit

  1. Josh says:

    Let’s hope that the City’s insurance pool takes this settlement seriously enough to include bollard hazards in their risk management reviews with every city they insure.

    Years after Camicia’s crash, however, the City of Mercer Island still doesn’t paint its bollards bright colors; they don’t reliably reflectorize bollards for night-time visibility, or maintain the reflectors that are in place; they don’t use MUTCD-standard hazard striping for their bollards anywhere on the Island. They talk a good game about the safety of Trail users, but the hazards that paralyzed Susan Camicia are still in place all across Mercer Island today.

    If I were managing the City’s risk pool, I’d give them until their next renewal to bring their bollards up to modern safety standards or send them shopping for other insurance. One $7 million loss is enough.

    (Their argument that the Trail was purely recreational was never factually-tenable to begin with — the City recognized the I-90 Trail as a transportation facility at least as far back as the 1973 Municipal Code, and the City Council has repeatedly recognized it as a transportation route in binding votes on the City’s Transportation Plan, Comprehensive Plan, Trails Plan, Capital Improvement Plan, etc.)

  2. JG says:

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I am a daily commuter on the I-90 trail and hadn’t known about this.

  3. Kevin McDonald says:

    I was unaware of this tragic crash, and it makes me sad that it happened. The city did the right thing in assuming responsibility and offering some compensation. I am also a daily commuter on the I-90 Trail, and I have been riding this route for years. I am noticing more and more hazards to daily commute of all of us who use the I-90 Trail. In addition to bollards that are not reflectorized, the pavement in several sections is deteriorating, particularly in a very dark and narrow section of trail just west of the East Channel bridge. I have brought this condition to the attention of city of Mercer Island officials on several occasions, and nothing is done – although some painted root heaves makes me slightly hopeful. Lest the I-90 Trail continue to deteriorate to resemble sections of the Burke Gilman Trail, I suggest commuters and recreational riders contact Mercer Island to suggest the trail surface be repaired.

    • Josh says:

      One possible piece of good news — as part of the North Mercer Island / Enatai sewer upgrade, King County Wastewater Treatment needs to replace the sewer main that runs from the Norther Mercer pump station down to the Bellevue Slough.

      One routing option for the new pipeline would be under the I-90 Trail right of way. If that route is chosen, the Trail would be temporarily closed for construction, with marked detours, and we’d end up with a new Trail engineered and paved to modern standards.

      It’s beyond the open house phase now, but there’s still some public info on the County project site:

      http://www.kingcounty.gov/environment/wtd/Construction/East/NMIEnatai.aspx

      • Josh says:

        (Note, though, that construction won’t begin until 2019, so it’s not a quick fix for any of Mercer Island’s maintenance issues.)

  4. asdf2 says:

    I’m glad that Susan was able to get some compensation for the hazardous design, but at the same time, I have to wonder if the lawsuit potential is a double-edged sword, in that jurisdictions will now think twice about building a trail in the first place, just to avoid the risk of a lawsuit, and the resultant hike in insurance premiums.

    • Josh says:

      The risk of suits is very small if they just bother complying with adopted standards, just like designing streets. You’re not expected to make a facility perfectly safe, just reasonably safe, and generally, meeting standards is accepted as reasonably safe.

      But complying with standards really adds very little to the cost of a trail, the big costs are right of way, site work, and pavement.

      The bollards on Mercer Island fall far below AASHTO, MUTCD, and WSDOT standards, even outdated standards from the 1980s, there’s little evidence on the ground that they’ve paid any significant attention to safety in decades.

    • benwood says:

      Risk of lawsuits doesn’t seem to slow down any gov’t entity in creating new roads, so why would it for a far cheaper bike path? The improvements necessary are so incredibly cheap.

      Two or three summers ago I encountered a foreign exchange student who was biking and who a root bump on the BG trail near Hec Ed Pavillion and went over his handlebars! Most of the BG trail is simply appalling.

  5. Rich Knox says:

    I was until recently a daily commuter across Mercer Island to downtown Bellevue. I avoided the trail as much as possible. I was never quite sure how to deal with the park and ride where the trail takes you onto the sidewalk and right through a busy bus stop. It was always nerve racking. The section adjacent to where N Mercer Way becomes 84th is also troublesome. Westbound at night, the trail is is very dark and lights from cars on the nearby roadway shine in your eyes. And don’t get me started on dog walkers with extendable leashes. I feel quite a bit safer on the streets with the cars.

    • William C. says:

      Myself, whenever I’m heading through that area, I just take the lane on the street.

      I agree, it badly needs an upgrade. Maybe this lawsuit will give it one.

  6. Pingback: How Giving Bike Share Prime Real Estate Attracts More Riders | Streetsblog.net

  7. Dave says:

    Construction crews are VERY careless about the placement of signs as they affect cyclists and pedestrians. I’ve thrown a few onto construction sites and even come back with my car and stolen a couple that have been placed dangerously. I have even kicked one over in front of workers with my unclipped right foot–these things really piss me off.

    • Josh says:

      Worth noting, the contractor paid their millions for this crash years ago. It was very clear their improper fence layout was what triggered the swerve that led to the bollard. Only the City managed to drag things out so long with its attempts to avoid liability.

  8. Steve Dosset says:

    Agreed. Just kicked one out of the path at Log Boom Park where some neanderthals placed it in the ridiculously narrow detour path. Construction workers obviously hate cyclists, but there should be city engineers who inspect work sites who should know better.

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