Lawsuit filed against county over fatal 2011 crash in Marysville

MARYSVILLE — A teen severely injured in a 2011 car crash that killed a fellow Marysville Getchell High School student has filed a lawsuit against Snohomish County over road conditions.

Lars Kundu was one of two teenage passengers in the car driven by Juan Mendoza, the 16-year-old who died. The lawsuit filed Oct. 20 in King County Superior Court also names the dead boy’s parents as defendants.

Kundu, who turned 18 this year, filed the lawsuit with his parents, Nola and Michael Kundu of Lake Stevens.

“Our client has permanent injuries to his brain that will affect him for the rest of his life,” said Ann Deutscher, one of Kundu’s attorneys. “He will, in one way or another, be dependent on his parents of the rest of his life.”

The crash occurred on the afternoon of Oct. 24, 2011, as Juan was driving west — downhill— on 108th Street NE from 83rd Avenue NE. Because of the road’s steep slope, some locals have dubbed it “roller-coaster hill,” attorneys said.

The three boys had left school before cross-country practice, planning to return. Kundu was a front-seat passenger, and another boy rode in the backseat.

Snohomish County Sheriff’s investigators later estimated the 1997 Honda Civic was traveling well over the posted 35 mph speed limit, perhaps around 70 mph.

Mendoza had obtained his driver’s license four months earlier. Under state law, the intermediate credential prohibited him from carrying passengers younger than 20 who were not family members.

The road surface was wet at the time of the crash. A witness told detectives the Civic went airborne for more than 30 feet after it crested a hump at the top of the hill.

The car lost control, slid down an embankment and hit trees on the side of the road, deputies said. Both surviving passengers were airlifted to Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center.

The families of Kundu and the other boy later filed a $50 million damage claim against Snohomish County, but the other teen’s family soon withdrew.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys pressed the county to have the Washington State Patrol perform the investigation, to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest. The county declined and had the Sheriff’s Office investigate, following normal procedure.

Lars Kundu now attends community college, but the accident has derailed a once-bright academic future, his attorneys said.

“If you saw Lars walking on the street, you’d think he’s a normal kid,” Deutscher said. “You want to interact with him like a normal kid. But he’s not.”

The lawsuit faults Snohomish County for poor design and maintenance of the portion of 108th Street NE where the crash occurred. They contend that at the time of the accident, there were inadequate signs warning motorists of the steep grade and poor sight lines.

County attorneys are reviewing the allegations.

“We’ll evaluate the complaint and prepare to defend the county,” said Jason Cummings, the county’s chief civil attorney. “It’s an unfortunate circumstance where the driver died, and our thoughts are with the family.”

The county public works department in 2012 spent about $1 million to improve an 800-foot section of the road that includes the crash site. County officials have said the improvements were related to the approval of a 10-house development at the top of the hill, not a direct response to the accident.

Deutscher and her law partner, Jim Dore, find that hard to believe.

“They engineered a fix to what should have already been fixed,” Dore said. “It clearly shows there was an issue.”

Kundu’s Kent-based legal team maintains they aren’t seeking damages from the Mendozas and have named them only as a legal technicality. The Mendozas’ attorney said the same thing.

“We’re not in an adversarial relationship with Kundu’s family,” said attorney Elizabeth Hanley of Seattle. “Everybody is sympathetic to each other’s losses and damages.”

Juan Mendoza’s death was mourned widely at Marysville Getchell, where he was a strong student and soccer standout. His relatives continue to grieve.

“He brought a lot of strength to their family,” Hanley said.

Survivors include his parents, a younger sister and an older brother. The brother, in particular, counted on Juan to help cope with a serious long-term illness that has left him with seizures and trouble balancing, Hanley said.

Parents Rafael and Maria Carmen Mendoza, who still live in Marysville, have filed three damage claims against the county asking for $50 million, the same amount that Kundu’s attorneys had requested. One claim corresponds to their dead son’s estate and the others to each parent. They’ve filed three claims for the same amount against the Marysville School District, alleging that the district had a legal duty to protect children participating in after-school sports.

The Kundus recently filed damage claims against the school district, but haven’t named it in the lawsuit.

Lars Kundu’s father is a former Marysville School Board member who resigned amid controversy in 2010.

Damage claims are a requirement before suing a public agency in Washington.

The attorneys are adamant that the road, not just negligent driving, contributed to the injuries and death.

“The easiest thing to do is to blame it on a 16-year-old boy entirely,” Hanley said. “It’s easier for Snohomish County to do that than to look at its own part of what happened.”

The county and the school district have 60 days from the filing date to respond to the damage claims. No court date has been set in the lawsuit.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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