Claims that could turn into a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the state were filed Tuesday by a Bothell family that lost two parents when an ice-heavy tree struck their SUV east of Stevens Pass in December.
The six claims filed with the state Attorney General’s Office say that the state Department of Transportation should have closed Highway 2 east of Stevens Pass long before the tree crushed the Owen family on the afternoon of Dec. 21. The accident instantly killed parents Tim Owen, 58, and Cheryl Reed Owen, 56. It crushed and severely injured their daughters Jessica Owen, 27, and Jaime Owen-Mayer, 25; and son-in-law Steven Mayer, 25, as well. Son Jeremy Owen, 22, was the only person to walk away from the accident, but not without emotional scars.
In the days preceding the accident, more than 100 trees in the area had snapped under the weight of heavy ice and snow left by an unusually severe ice storm, according to Chelan County. Dispatch records show that on Dec. 20, at least three trees fell onto Highway 2, including a large one that blocked traffic in both directions less than a mile from where the Owen family accident would happen the next day.
By Dec. 19, the Chelan County’s Unified Command Structure had already issued an emergency declaration for the Lake Wenatchee area near the highway, closed several roads and discouraged driving in the area.
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The claims filed Tuesday allege that the tree that fell on the Owen family snapped for the same reason hundreds of other trees in Lake Wenatchee and Mount Baker areas had in previous days. But unlike the Mount Baker Highway, which was closed for several days, Highway 2 was kept open by state transportation officials until a second vehicle was hit on the highway the day after the Owen family vehicle was hit.
About five hours after those officials ignored two urgent requests from the Washington State Patrol to close the highway on Dec. 22, a car driven by a Seattle man with his pregnant wife and three relatives was struck by another falling tree. The driver suffered serious injuries and had to be extricated after the accident. A State Patrol sergeant said, in a phone interview, that in another split second the accident would have been fatal.
No specific amount of damages was asked for in the Owen family claims, but medical bills for survivors have already surpassed $1 million, and survivors are expected to have many more big bills in the future. Jessica Owen, who has a partial spinal-cord injury, and her brother-in-law, Steven Mayer, are still staying at medical centers trying to walk again. Jaime Owen Mayer was released from a nursing facility with a walker last month. And those are just the medical costs. What the Owen family also wants considered are the wages and lifestyle that sixth-grade teacher Jessica Owen, law student Jaime Owen Mayer and Microsoft engineer Steven Mayer are missing while making rehabilitation a priority for months, or perhaps years.
Jessica Owen hopes to spend at least two months at Craig Hospital in Denver for intensive spinal-care treatments, none of which will be covered by her insurance.
Both the state Attorney General’s Office and the state Department of Transportation (DOT) said on Tuesday that it was too early to comment on the claims.
The state could attempt to settle the case, but the family’s lawyer, Karen Koehler, doubts that’s what will happen. So far, the DOT has not accepted any responsibility for not shutting down the highway east of Stevens Pass sooner.
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org.