Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark says she immediately notified city officials in 2012 when her car collided with a bicyclist.
Clark publicly discussed the incident for the first time Tuesday, prompted by the recent filing of a $2.5 million claim against the city more than two years later.
Clark said she did what she thought was appropriate by telling city lawyers, risk managers and her council colleagues.
“I told the folks within the city who needed to know,” she said in an interview. “I didn’t feel like it was an appropriate thing to tweet or Facebook or anything like that. We checked in regularly to find out the status of the claim. When the claim was filed, then we had the complete story.”
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The claim, brought by Steve Fairbanks, a former Lakewood, Pierce County, man who now lives in Oregon, represents the first step in a potential lawsuit if the matter is not settled.
It was filed Nov. 10, detailing a May 12, 2012, collision in Tacoma that occurred in Clark’s “official capacity” while on her way to an event as a City Council member.
Fairbanks, 45, was riding a bicycle about 9:15 a.m. on South Ninth Street, trying to get through South Market Street, when Clark’s Ford Escape turned left in his path, according to the claim and a police report.
Fairbanks “possessed the right of way” when the collision knocked him to the ground, according to the claim.
The claim alleges Fairbanks suffered serious injury, including a broken left leg that has remained permanently deformed with a loss of feeling and chronic pain. He underwent surgery to remove an existing plate and screws in the leg during his treatment, according to the claim.
As part of the claim, Fairbanks, an electrician, is seeking lost wages.
Neither Fairbanks nor his attorney could be reached for comment Tuesday.
In a statement issued Tuesday, Clark described the collision as an accident, saying it occurred on a Saturday morning as she was on her way to a speaking engagement.
“I was in my personal car and taking a left turn just before arriving at the location. I did not see an oncoming cyclist and he didn’t have time to stop before running into my passenger side door. I and others immediately called 911 and stayed with the cyclist until he was taken to the hospital. He had a clearly broken leg,” Clark wrote.
Clark said she received and paid a citation.
“I immediately alerted my insurer, followed by city staff from FAS (Risk Management) and Law,” the statement said, referring to the Department of Finance and Administrative Services.
“This was an accident and a reminder of how quickly something like this can happen,” Clark wrote. “ As a driver and a cyclist — who rides my bike to work not often enough — I continue to be shaken by what happened. I’m thankful (if that’s the right word) that what was a bad outcome for the cyclist wasn’t worse.”
In the police report, Clark was quoted as saying she was looking for a church on a corner and did not see the cyclist.
Clark has registered as a candidate for one of two at-large seats ahead of the council’s 2015 election. The council’s seven other seats are moving to district representation.
She was appointed to a vacant council seat in 2006 and won her first election to the council later that year. For a period, she served as council president.
Clark acknowledged Tuesday that she was on city business when the collision occurred. She was on her way to speak to a class held by Out in Front, a local LGBTQ leadership program, she said.
City Attorney Pete Holmes, in a Sept. 24, 2012, letter to Clark’s attorney, said he had determined Clark was acting within the scope of her city employment while driving to the Tacoma event.
“Case law holds that such activities are within the course and scope of employment so long as the events are informational rather than for self-promotion purposes,” Holmes wrote, responding to a seven-page letter from Clark’s attorney spelling out in detail why such a finding should be reached.
Holmes determined Clark’s own insurance policy would be primary, with the city’s obligation secondary.
Clark said the policy covers up to $25,000. She said she had not checked her limits in a long time, is not proud of where they were at the time, and urged people to check their coverage.
Clark said she was not impaired in any way at the time of the collision and apologized to the bicyclist.
“I’m sorry for the time and the recovery that the cyclist has to go through and, again, it was an accident,” she said.
Bicycle safety has become a hot-button issue in Seattle politics of late, with bicyclists emerging as an influential voting bloc and city officials doing more to protect them.
But Clark said she’s not focused on the potential for political backlash.
“Were I not a cyclist there might be some more traction with that,” she said.
“I’ve been a part of a lot of those conversations in trying to figure out how we make the investments in infrastructure and education in Seattle for everybody. I biked to work yesterday,” Clark added.
“I’m happy for the infrastructure that Seattle has and we need more of it and more recognition of sharing the road. But that’s a little bit separate from a particular, discrete accident,” she said.
Anne-Marije Rook, spokeswoman for the Cascade Bicycle Club, said local bicyclists shouldn’t turn on Clark.
“I certainly hope not,” Rook said. “She accidentally hit a bike. She’s a very avid bicyclist herself and has done great things for bicycling in Seattle.”
Rook said the collision shows how important bicycle-safety improvements can be.
“Not being able to see the bike is probably the No. 1 response people have,” she said. “That happens all the time, which is exactly why we need infrastructure like protected lanes that provide clarity on where to expect other road users.”
“This could happened to anyone,” said Rook.
Clark said she couldn’t remember how much she paid for the ticket.