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Families of U.S. airmen who died in June’s I-84 crash file tort claims against ITD, others

December 28, 2018
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Senior Airman Carlos Johnson, center.

The families of three U.S. airmen who died in a seven-vehicle crash in June on Interstate 84 have filed tort claims against the Idaho Transportation Department as well as other agencies, claiming their deaths resulted from a poorly carried-out construction project.

That crash occurred about 11:30 p.m. June 16, near the Cloverdale overpass on the interstate, just east of Meridian. It involved a semitrailer and six other vehicles, including a 2008 Jeep Wrangler carrying U.S. Senior Airman Carlos Johnson, Senior Airman Karlie Westall and Senior Airman Lawrence Manlapit III. The three, as well as a commercial truck driver, died in a massive fire resulting from the crash.

Late last month and early this month, family members of the three airmen filed separate tort claims on their behalf, seeking a total of $12 million in damages, as first reported by the Idaho Statesman. According to a claim filed by attorneys representing Johnson’s family, the construction “project was negligently designed and/or engineered, or negligently carried out ... and provided inadequate, improper or insufficient signage and notice to drivers, which therefore created an unsafe construction zone for drivers traveling eastbound on Interstate 84 at or about the same time as Airman Johnson and at or about the same location as Airman Johnson.” In addition to the Idaho Transportation Department, some of the claims also listed the Idaho State Police, as well as the three companies contracted to design and carry out the construction project. These include Penhall Company of Utah, the project’s contractor; Specialty Traffic Control/Construction Supply of Meridian, whose employees were responsible for flagging the area; and Parametrix, the Boise engineering firm whose employees designed the construction safety plan.

The construction in question was routine, and it resulted in lane closures along that stretch of highway at night, the Idaho Transportation Department confirmed in the days after the incident. But the tort claims aren’t the first time drivers voiced concern about the signage leading up to the work site — multiple people called 911 before the crash about what they felt were unsafe conditions on the interstate as a result of the construction. Some drivers said the lane closures were closely spaced and didn’t give them enough time to cross over.

And in fact, an initial report from the Idaho State Police confirmed slowing traffic did likely play some role in the crash — while Johnson slowed his Jeep for traffic, the driver of the semitrailer behind him, Illya Tsar, didn’t slow down. The semitrailer struck Johnson’s Jeep from behind, and the two vehicles careened into another semitrailer driven by Roman Zhuk, according to the police report. That initiated a domino effect, and multiple other vehicles were involved. In addition to the three occupants of Johnson’s Jeep, Tsar himself also died as a result of the crash. The initial Idaho State Police cites his “inattention” as a likely cause of the crash.

After Johnson’s Jeep crashed into Zhuk’s semitrailer, the truck then rammed a 2006 Ford Fusion driven by Toina Jorgensen, with her partner, Erika Medina, as a passenger, according to a fourth tort claim filed by their attorneys.

“The claim amount for Ms. Jorgensen and Ms. Medina is unknown pending the investigations and discovery, however, we estimate these claims to have a value not to exceed $35,000,” attorneys wrote in the claim.

Dan Jenkins, who is representing Jorgensen, Medina, and the families of Manlapit and Johnson, did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment. Nor did Russell Janklow, who is listed as the attorney representing Westall’s family.

Tort claims aren’t formal lawsuits. They are notices a plaintiff believes a wrong has been done. A defendant listed in a claim has 90 days to respond after its filing. And although the families of Westall, Manlapit and Johnson asked for millions of dollars in damages, Idaho state law limits the liability of government entities to $500,000 — “unless the governmental entity has purchased applicable, valid, collectible liability insurance coverage in excess of said limit, in which event the controlling limit shall be the remaining available proceeds of such insurance.”

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Senior Airman Carlos Johnson, center.