Victim's parents seek $500K from county

Friends and family of Jesse Travis continue to maintain a memorial on Coles Road to the 18-year-old, who died in a traffic accident at the spot shortly after graduation in 2000. - Matt Johnson
Friends and family of Jesse Travis continue to maintain a memorial on Coles Road to the 18-year-old, who died in a traffic accident at the spot shortly after graduation in 2000.
— image credit: Matt Johnson

After stating at their son's memorial service three years ago that they blamed "no one" for his death in a 2000 traffic accident, the parents of South Whidbey High School graduate Jesse Travis are now faulting Island County to the tune of $500,000.

On June 16, an attorney representing John Rogers and Robin Ferrand filed a claim for damages against the county, claiming that poor road design, inadequate speed limit postings and a lack of traffic enforcement -- amongst other factors -- contributed to Travis' death in a June 20, 2000 collision on Coles Road. The filing came just four days before a statute of limitations ran out on the case.

Peter Moote, the Freeland attorney representing Rogers and Ferrand, said this week that it took until recently for his clients and him to discover there is blame to be laid in Travis' death. Travis, 18, died when the car in which he was a front-seat passenger collided head on with another car on a remote stretch of Coles Road. He was ejected from the vehicle -- a 1995 Hyundai Elantra driven by then 17-year-old Noboru Jones -- and died shortly afterwards. Jones suffered massive head trauma.

At the time of the collision, the Hyundai was travelling at approximately 55 mph, according to an initial Washington State Patrol report. The other driver involved in the collision, then-17-year-old Joseph Mulcahey of Clinton, was not seriously injured. The collision was Mulcahey's second in five months. On Feb. 25, 2000, he crashed another car while drag racing on Wintergreen Road.

Attorney Moote said he and his clients only decided to file a claim against Island County after they obtained a copy of the State Patrol's accident investigation this year. It took more than two years to obtain the investigation report, Moote said.

"At the time, we didn't know and John (Rogers) didn't know what the true facts of the case were," Moote said.

The patrol also refused multiple requests from The South Whidbey Record and the Island County Sheriff's Office for more than a year after the accident and has yet to meet new requests for the information.

When Moote and his clients did receive a copy of the report, they questioned its results and hired two accident reconstruction specialists to analyze the data.

"Their analysis didn't make sense," Moote said.

With the report in hand and new interpretations of its conclusions, Moote said there is ample evidence to show the Island County Sheriff's Office knew of speeding complaints along the section of Coles Road in question, yet did not respond with additional enforcement. The claim also asserts that the speed limit on the road was in doubt at the time of the accident and that the road was poorly maintained.

The speed limit currently posted for that section of the road is 25 mph.

In his official capacity, Island County Sheriff Mike Hawley said he could not comment on the lawsuit. However, on a personal level, he said Rogers and Ferrand could damage Island County financially, especially if the claim is denied and the matter goes to court. Even if the county prevails, legal costs could run in the tens of thousands of dollars.

"Personally, I'm very disappointed," he said. "The county is not some nebulous entity. It's you."

The county has until mid August to either negotiate a settlement of the claim, or to deny it and risk a jury trial. Moote said he and his clients will take their claim to court if it is turned down.

The size of the claim is quite large compared to most filed against the county. Betty Kemp, the county's risk manager, said she handles about 15 claims each month. However, there are usually no more than three per year that approach the size of that filed by Moote and his clients.

Moote and his clients have also filed civil lawsuits against Mulcahey and Jones, the drivers responsible for the accident. As the patrol has not yet responded to requests for public information in connection to the accident, it is unknown whether either driver was charged in Travis' death.

Matt Johnson / staff photo

Friends and family of Jesse Travis continue to maintain a memorial to the 18-year-old on Coles Road, who died in a traffic accident at the spot shortly after graduation in 2000.


What to damage claims cost the public?

In 2002, Island County spent $78,072 defending against and processing claims for damages. According to Betty Kemp, the county's risk manager, $43,045 of that was spent defending against three claims that became lawsuits, claims totalling over $5.2 million. One of those lawsuits is still active, while two were settled in favor of Island County.

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