CAMANO ISLAND — Ric Shallow pulled out of his driveway on a frosty January morning near Triangle Cove.
Days later he woke up in a hospital bed.
“Ric, if you can hear me, blink your eyes,” he heard a voice say.
“Ric, if you can hear me, wiggle your fingers.”
He lifted his fingers.
His groggy mind phased back into consciousness. He realized the voice belonged his wife of nearly 40 years, Julie Shallow. She ran out of the room and returned with her husband’s best friend, Dan Haskins. They were overcome with relief when he remembered his name and details about his life.
“That’s when Julie knew I was coherent,” Shallow said.
Yet it has been a long recovery for Shallow. Island County must now pay $9 million to him and his family, to settle claims that the notorious stretch of road where he crashed was unsafe due to the county’s “negligence and indifference to the safety of motorists.”
Shallow, of Camano Island, had been driving to work a week earlier on a typical Thursday, he said. He decided to take a scenic route. That is his last memory of Jan. 7, 2016. The events that followed were explained to him later.
Shallow was passing through a winding section of North Sunrise Boulevard on the island’s northeast corner when his silver sedan slipped on a patch of black ice and smashed into a tree roughly 2 feet from the shoulder. He suffered broken bones and severe injuries to his head. Shallow was airlifted by helicopter to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He was unconscious.
Doctors did not expect him to survive.
It has been 5½ years since his skull was nearly crushed. Shallow believes the crash was not his fault due to improper maintenance of the road.
In 2018, he was among a group of people injured at that spot who sued Island County. They documented how the “S” curve south of Terry’s Corner had an extensive history of crashes.
Shallow said the county was liable to remove all trees within 8 feet of the road’s edge at the curve, including the one he ran into.
The case was brought by lawyers representing Shallow and a Camano Island woman, Tanya Canell. Canell lost control on the same stretch of road one month before Shallow. Her two daughters died in the fiery crash.
All claims relating to the injuries Shallow suffered in 2016 were settled earlier this month. Back in May, the county settled Canell’s claims for $16 million.
In 2017, Island County made changes along North Sunrise Boulevard, lowering the speed limit through the S-curve to 35 mph, repaving the road and installing a guard rail.
The plaintiffs asserted the county should have made those changes prior to December 2016, adding that if it had, Shallow and Canell would not have been harmed.
”This lawsuit was an important lawsuit for public safety,” the plaintiffs’ personal injury attorney Michael Maxwell said. “Island County had long known this road posed hazards to innocent motorists.”
Between the years of 2006 and 2016, there were 17 other “adverse driving events” documented on North Sunrise Boulevard where drivers lost control, according to Maxwell.
“One week after Mr. Shallow’s crash, Island County came and removed the trees,” Maxwell said. “That should have been done 10 years earlier.”
Island County denied all liability in the cases of both Shallow and Canell, said John Justice, one of two private attorneys hired to represent the county. Justice said the county intends to release a statement regarding the settlements, but it had not been released as of Tuesday.
Maxwell argued that if the county had spent less than $100,000 to fix the dangerous stretch of road years ago, it would have saved itself $25 million.
The Shallow family is expected to receive their first $3 million settlement payment from the county this week, according to their attorney. The county must pay the remaining $6 million in 90 days.
Shallow, who was employed full-time until the crash, hasn’t been able to return to work because of his injuries, he said. He and his family plan to invest their settlement money and live off interest it accrues. They will leave the rest to their children.
Shallow said he wanted to make sure nobody else has to endure the trauma that he and others experienced because of that unsafe stretch of road.
When he was released from the hospital, Shallow was not able to breathe without the help of a tube called a tracheotomy that was surgically inserted into his windpipe. The tube made it difficult for him to speak.
“I would give all the money in the world to be normal again,” Shallow said. “It’s been so hard. I had to learn how to be a human all over again — how to walk, talk, eat and drink. I used to sing and dance.”
He will never forget the first time he could say words out loud again.
“The minute I could talk, I called all my kids to tell them I loved them,” he said.
For months, Shallow was enrolled in rehabilitative therapy at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup. Therapy sessions lasted six hours per day, and each night the man returned to his room completely exhausted.
Shallow, now 64, still suffers from impaired speech, balance and trouble eating.
He said he can no longer drive, so he relies on public transporation. Several times a week, an Island Transit bus drops off Shallow at the Stanwood-Camano YMCA.
“The bus and the YMCA saved my life,” he said. “They have been so good to me.”
At the Y, Shallow is now able to lift weights, swim and even run. Back at his house, Shallow passes time tending to his garden, where red plumosas and yellow day lilies bloom around the pond.
He said, “People think I’m some kind of miracle.”
Ellen Dennis: 425-339-3486; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @reporterellen