STAR BULLETIN / JULY 2003
At the funeral for Honolulu Police Department solo bike officer Ryan Goto at Borthwick Mortuary, officer Tenari Maafala talks to Goto's son, Bowen, outside of the service.
Lawsuits numerous in crash’s aftermath
SECOND OF TWO PARTS.
The rear impact drove Karin Williams' green Dodge Stratus onto the grass median.
In a nearby car, driver Alex Ojeda, 39, a sales agent with D&M Hydraulic Sales and Service, saw a frightening tableau unfold.
About this series
On July 23, 2003, an accident west of Kapolei killed a Honolulu police officer and Maili Elementary School student, generating a slew of lawsuits that is only now beginning to clear. Remaining complaints accuse the state of negligence for not installing barriers in the grass median in that section of Farrington Highway. Yesterday, Star-Bulletin writer Jim Borg examined the events leading up to the crash. Today, he describes the collision of vehicles and competing legal claims.
"The green car's tires were still turning and kicking up grass and dirt," he told police later. "I then observed a pack of solo bike police officers traveling westbound on Farrington in the left lane nearest the grass median. (And) I knew something bad was about to happen."
Riding abreast toward Waianae at about 50 mph were officers Ryan Goto, 35, nearest the median, and John Jerves, 32. Behind them rode Paul Javier, 35, and Jared Chong, 33. Bringing up the rear was David Bega, 26.
"I looked ahead," Bega said in his official statement, "and observed a large white box on Farrington Highway in the left lane for eastbound traffic, and noticed a white truck on the grass median reversing. I then noticed a vehicle eastbound on the grass median sliding sideways and kicking up a lot of dust and dirt. At the time, I didn't feel the vehicle was any threat to us, and it appeared to be slowing down."
As he got closer, Bega turned his head to avoid being blinded by the dust.
"The next thing I remember was seeing the blue sky and feeling pain, especially to my left arm."
Chong also noticed the green car "sliding sideways" on the median but did not view it as a hazard. "We continued still in the left lane, and it appeared the vehicle was slowing down and would come to a stop. Then, all of a sudden, the green vehicle shot out into our lane of travel, and by then we were very close -- about 10 feet. I then steered hard to the right, and so did officer Jerves."
It is unclear why Williams' car suddenly accelerated. Could it be that her spinning wheels suddenly gained traction on the grass? Did she mistakenly punch the accelerator instead of the brake? Her lawyer, Charles Ferrera, said she does not remember, so stunning was the impact.
GOTO HIT the Stratus first and suffered immediate and fatal injuries to his aorta and spinal cord. Javier hit next, then Bega.
Waipahu resident Rogelio Baltunado, 40, heading east at the wheel of a BAE Systems cargo truck, saw "an officer being thrown into the air along with various bike parts."
Three motorcycles ran or slid off the road, catching fire in the brush along the shoulder.
Officers Jerves and Chong hit the emergency signal buttons on their motorcycles, called for assistance and turned back to help the injured.
Jerves found Goto in the brush and sprayed his fire extinguisher between the unconscious officer and the advancing blaze. "He looked in bad shape."
Chong drove up to the Stratus, where a seemingly "hysterical" Williams told him, "I didn't mean to do it!" He told her to take care of her passengers and that he would be right back. He then tended to Goto -- still in the path of the flames -- while Jerves went over to check on Bega.
Said Jerves, "A couple of bystanders and I dragged Dave (Bega) out of the bushes away from the fire and onto the median."
Officer Denny Santiago, one of the first HPD responders on the scene, found Javier just as the flames were licking at his legs. He pulled him over to the median.
"Once Officer Javier was out of danger, I could hear someone calling for help inside the smoke," said Santiago. "I went in and found officers Jervis and Chong trying to pull officer Goto out before the flames got him."
IN THE BACK SEAT of the Stratus, sisters Mabel-Lynne and Maeghan Priddy appeared unhurt, but the front seat told a different story.
Alacia Williams had taken the brunt of three collisions. The 10-year-old Girl Scout never regained consciousness and was pronounced dead at St. Francis Medical Center-West.
Lorrie Ann Moniz, the driver of the Mustang that rear-ended Williams, was hurt slightly when her air bag inflated, but she and her boyfriend managed to climb out the passenger side.
Curious amid calamity, motorist Chalsey Breault, who had witnessed the entire chain of events, asked Moniz, "Why didn't you go to the right lane when you saw the white box?"
She recalled Moniz's confused response: "What white box?"
THE LAWSUITS SPAWNED by this accident over the last three years have involved lawyers from the state, the City and County of Honolulu and at least seven firms representing Karin Williams; her husband, Lon Williams, on behalf of Alacia; the Priddy sisters through their mother; Henderson; Henderson's insurance company; the Girl Scouts, since Karin Williams and the girls were on an outing; the Girl Scouts' insurance company; Alan Goto, on behalf of his son, Ryan Goto; Georgie-Ann Goto, Goto's ex-wife, and Bowen Goto, her son; and Javier and Bega, who were able to return to duty after surgery and rehabilitation.
They all have sued the state and each other in almost every permutation imaginable, with cross-complaints and third-party actions flying like pistol shots at the OK Corral.
Moniz, who police determined was driving 53 mph in a 45-mph zone, has represented herself. But since her auto insurance had lapsed at the time of the accident, the other plaintiffs have focused elsewhere for compensation.
"As far as I'm concerned, the case has been more or less resolved for about a year now in regard to Henderson," says attorney Jim Leavitt, representing Lon Williams. "But there are so many moving parts that it has been hard to say that all the t's have been crossed and all the i's have been dotted."
The main outstanding case contends that the state should have installed a median barrier long ago in that stretch of Farrington Highway.
Dana Viola, special assistant to Attorney General Mark Bennett, would say only that trial has been set for May.
State Department of Transportation spokesman Scott Ishikawa would not say whether the department has ever considered putting in a barrier in that area.
An October 2005 study prepared for Richard Turbin, the attorney for Georgie-Ann and Bowen Goto, concluded that the grass median, even at 24 feet in width, lost its value long ago as a safety buffer given the volume of traffic. The engineering firm of Edward Stevens & Associates of Olympia, Wash., noted further that the state lacks even a process for monitoring the need for traffic barriers.
As a result, the danger on this stretch of Farrington Highway has become "severe," Stevens said in the report. The sheer volume of median-crossing accidents in that area -- some eerily similar to the July 2003 crash -- would seem to bear him out. (See accompanying list.)
However the case finally is resolved, the eight main motorists in that day's drama, whether strangers, friends or casual acquaintances, are inextricably linked in sadness. As in Thornton Wilder's novel "The Bridge of San Luis Rey," which traces the paths of five people who die when a bridge collapses, divine plans remain obscure. But the survivors have their lives to ponder the power of minute movements at crucial moments.
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Median-crossing crashes are a common occurrence
According to Honolulu Police Department records subpoenaed as part of the 2003 Farrington Highway accident lawsuits, median-crossing crashes have been all too common over the last decade along the stretch of Farrington Highway east of Laaloa Street where Ryan Goto and Alacia Williams were killed. Some examples:
» On May 18, 1994, a Chevy Blazer sped up to pass another vehicle in the eastbound lanes and lost control, slid onto the median and flipped several times, severely injuring the driver.
» On Aug. 5, 1995, a westbound Chevy Malibu lost a tire, crossed the median and hit the guardrail on the far side of the eastbound traffic. No other cars were involved.
» On June 30, 1995, a chair fell off the back of an eastbound GMC pickup. Two cars braked and swerved right to avoid the chair, but a third car swerved left, crossed the center line and hit two oncoming vehicles. No injuries.
» On Nov. 16, 1996, three people were injured when an eastbound Chevy Silverado swerved to avoid another vehicle and crossed the median into oncoming traffic, colliding with a GMC truck.
» On Oct. 9, 1997, a westbound Mercury Cougar hit the median, crossed over into the eastbound lanes and hit the guardrail.
» On July 19, 1998, a westbound Toyota pickup blew a tire east of Waiomea Street and spun out of control, crossed two lanes and the dirt median and hit an eastbound vehicle. Injuries unknown.
» On Aug. 8, 1998, the driver of a westbound Mercury Cougar bent over to pick something up from the floor of his car and lost control, crossing the median and the eastbound lanes and colliding with the grass embankment.
» On Nov. 26, 1998, the driver of an eastbound Buick lost control and spun across the median, overturning twice and hitting a westbound Mazda. Two people were injured.
» On Aug. 26, 1999, a Chevy Monte Carlo traveling east ran off the road onto the median strip and flipped, coming to rest upside down in the westbound lanes. The driver and sole occupant, a woman, 23, were dazed but unhurt.
» On Sept. 9, 1999, four people were injured when an eastbound Saturn was rear-ended and spun across the median into the westbound lanes.
» On Oct. 5, 1999, a westbound Mazda Protege hit a westbound Chevy Suburban and went careening out of control, across the median, across the eastbound lanes and came to rest against a fence at the Ko Olina Golf Course.
» On April 30, 2000, the driver of a Pontiac Grand Am fell asleep, crossed the median into the eastbound lanes and overturned in a ditch.
» On Aug. 12, 2001, the driver of an eastbound Nissan Pulsar heard a "thump" before the car began sliding to the left and across the median, coming to a stop in the westbound fast lane.
» On Dec. 7, 2002, an eastbound Honda Civic crossed the median and hit a westbound Hyundai. Minor injuries in both vehicles.
» On Feb. 9, 2003, an eastbound Isuzu hit a bush on the median, flipped over and landed in the westbound lanes, hitting a Subaru Outback, which then hit a Dodge Caravan in another lane. One person injured.
» On April 11, 2003, three people were injured when an eastbound Acura Legend crossed the grass median and collided head-on with a Ford Taurus, which crossed the median and eastbound lanes and hit the guardrail.