State sued for fatal crash on 522, the ‘highway of death’

MONROE — A crash on Highway 522 that killed three people in 2014, including a toddler, has led to two wrongful death lawsuits and allegations that the state has ignored a dangerous stretch of road for decades.

Over the years, improvements have been made to Highway 522 between Highway 9 and U.S. 2. However, a portion of the busy highway remains just two lanes with no center line dividers.

It was on that section of highway that 18-month-old Isabella Rose Bednarski and Redmond couple Stanley and Joan Kinger were fatally injured in a head-on crash June 16, 2014.

Washington State Patrol troopers believe that Isabella’s father fell asleep at the wheel, drifted onto the shoulder, struck a construction barrel and overcorrected. His vehicle crossed the center line into the Kingers’ oncoming car. The couple, who had been married 54 years, were driving home from their daughter’s house in Monroe.

Joan Kinger, 76, died at the scene. Her husband, 79, died at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. Isabella succumbed to her injuries four days later.

Her father, 24, was issued a traffic infraction for second-degree negligent driving. Investigators found no evidence that drugs, alcohol or cellphone use were involved in the crash. No criminal charges were filed.

The Kingers’ daughters and Isabella’s mother are suing the state, alleging that Washington has known for decades that the highway is dangerous and has breached its duty to provide a safe roadway. The causing driver also is named as a defendant in the lawsuit, filed earlier this month in Snohomish County Superior Court.

The state Department of Transportation “has acknowledged that State Route 522 is known as the ‘Highway of Death,’” lawyers wrote.

“This has been going on for a long time,” Hoquiam lawyer Keith Kessler said. “The state says there’s not enough money to fix it. Under Washington state law, that’s not an excuse.”

Online, the state describes Highway 522 as an important east-west route that runs from I-5 in Seattle to U.S. 2 in Monroe. In that same description, the state wrote that growth along the corridor has increased traffic and accident rates on the “overburdened highway.”

“Reader’s Digest warned drivers in November 2000 that the 10 mile stretch of SR 522 between Woodinville and Monroe was among America’s most dangerous highways,” the state website says.

The attorneys who filed the lawsuits said they have collected accident data through public records requests. Data show that between 1980 and 1995, there were 1,780 collisions on Highway 522, resulting in 1,359 injuries and 47 deaths, said Todd Gardner, a Renton lawyer who represents Isabella’s mother.

The state Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration reported in 2002 that the highway averages three fatal crashes a year, wrote Kessler, who represents the Kingers’ daughters.

According to WSDOT, there were 100 crashes, including three fatality collisions, between 2006 and 2010 in the four-mile stretch between the Snohomish River Bridge and the U.S. 2 interchange in Monroe.

Improvements on that section of road were completed in 2015. The highway was widened and a median barrier separating oncoming traffic was added, among other changes.

Widening the rest of the highway between Paradise Lake Road and the Snohomish River Bridge has been stalled, creating a bottleneck that irks commuters daily. That widening project remains unfunded, according to the state.

Voters in 2007 turned down a $17.8 billion transportation package that included $127 million to widen the highway to the Snohomish River Bridge and add an interchange at Paradise Lake Road.

There is $750,000 set aside in the state’s transportation budget to pay for early design plans at the interchange. Talks are under way on how best to use that money. The state also has set aside $10 million to design the new interchange but that won’t be released until 2025. No money has been earmarked for construction.

“There has been a mismanagement of funds,” Kessler said. “The state is aware of the bottleneck and the hazards.”

Gardner said his client is hoping the lawsuit will help push the state to fix the dangers on the highway. “She doesn’t want other parents to go through what she has,” he said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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