Family Files $16.5M Claim Over Washington Crash

By LEVI PULKKINEN, | November 18, 2014

It should’ve been a day to remember for Clay Eakin.

He and his wife of four months, Barbara Eakin, were headed to Sea-Tac Airport to start their honeymoon. The romance launched eight years before over the chore of laundry was taking them to Belize.

Instead, though, Eakin can barely recall anything that happened that day, Dec. 18, or the days that followed. Seriously injured in a car crash that morning, Eakin considers his amnesia a small mercy – the wreck ended Barbara’s life.

Eakin and Barbara’s daughter, Rhonda Malland, now say King County and the city of Burien set the stage for the deadly crash by failing to block off the end of a dead-end street above state Route 509, where the crash occurred. A barrier there would likely have stopped Christopher Wittman, a 25-year-old Tukwila man who was driving drunk, high on marijuana and distracted by his phone when he ran out of road and onto the Eakins below.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Clay Eakin said at a press conference Thursday announcing an effort to win a $16.5 million payment from the King County and Burien. “Engineers told them they needed to do more there and they didn’t.”

Eakin and Malland, both of Marysville, have filed a tort claim with the governments, the first step toward filing a lawsuit. Attorney Bradley Davis said his clients are prepared to pursue a lawsuit in the very likely event that a settlement isn’t reached in the next two months.

In a statement, a city of Burien spokesperson blamed Davis for “trying to make the taxpayers of Burien pay for damages caused by a drunk driver.” The city described the road – Southwest 116th Street – as a “clearly marked dead end road.”

Speaking Tuesday, Davis described the government failure to address a known hazard – a street that ended on a bluff with no barrier between the roadway and the highway below.

At least twice before, drivers had overshot the end of Southwest 116th Street. Wittman was apparently the first to make it to Route 509, and certainly the first to kill.

Engineers previously installed a heavy metal guardrail at the end of 116th Street. Davis said the metal rail was removed for replacement with a more substantial barrier after being struck by cars several times.

That larger barrier was installed, months after Barbara Eakin was killed.

The Dec. 18 crash was cruelly strange.

At 4:50 a.m., the Eakins were headed to Sea-Tac for an early flight to Phoenix, where they were to visit Clay’s mother before traveling on to Belize for their honeymoon.

At the same time, Wittman was behind the wheel of a 2008 Chevrolet Malibu after pounding down six shots of liquor at a friend’s birthday party. He blew through a stop sign and failed to recognize that 116th Street ended to make way for Route 509 below.

Traveling as fast as 80 mph, Wittman’s car landed on the passenger side of the Eakins’ Mazda. Clay and Barbara suffered catastrophic injuries; Wittman fled the scene and was arrested at a nearby gas station.

Her spine crushed and neurological status unclear, Barbara Eakin was initially somewhat conscious after arriving at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. She soon became comatose but lingered for 20 days before succumbing to her injuries Jan. 7.

Clay Eakin sustained a brain injury that lingers to this day, as well as painful skeletal injuries. The crash left him confused and with vision problems.

Davis said his clients’ suffering could’ve been avoided had those responsible for maintaining safe roads done their work well.

Photos taken by the county show that a guardrail had been placed at the end of 116th Street. It was removed, Davis said, with plans for a larger barrier, which was not installed.

“What’s amazing to me is the county removed the guardrail, removed the hazard markers, but never installed the barricade,” Davis said.

“This was a horribly dangerous area that the county and the city of Burien did nothing to address,” the Seattle attorney continued. “It fell through the cracks.”

Having given the county and Burien notice that they intend to sue, Eakin and Malland must now wait 60 days before filing a lawsuit in state court.

The mandatory delay is meant to provide an opportunity to settle claims without incurring unnecessary legal costs. As a practical matter, though, it is often simply a delay.

Wittman was convicted of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault. He was sentenced Oct. 31 to 11 years in prison.

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