Fatal Crash Blamed on ‘Confusing’ Left-Sided Iowa Interchange

DES MOINES, Iowa (CN) – The estate of a police officer killed by a drunk driver in a wrong-way crash sued two Iowa cities, claiming they were negligent in designing a “confusing” interstate interchange that routes cars to the left of oncoming traffic.

Officers Carlos Puente-Morales, 34, and Susan Farrell, 30, perished in March 2016, when Knoxville resident Benjamin Beary took a wrong turn on Iowa Interchange 80 and drove westbound in eastbound lanes. Beary and Tosha Nicole Hyatt, 32, a prisoner who the officers were transporting, were also killed after he collided with the officers’ Ford Explorer.

Four families sued the bar that had served alcohol to Beary. Last month, the families settled with the West Des Moines bar, the Keg Stand, for $300,000, according to the Des Moines Register. The bar did not admit any liability or wrongdoing.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Polk County District Court, Farrell’s family members take aim at the cities of Waukee and West Des Moines and the contractors hired for the interstate interchange project. They allege that the cities rushed through the construction of a “diverging diamond interchange” in just over a year without ensuring that the proper road markings, lighting, and signage were in place.

Represented by Stephen Marso of Whitfield & Eddy, the family is suing for negligence, nuisance and premises liability. Marso did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Waukee spokeswoman Summer Evans said Thursday that the city could not comment on pending litigation. In an email sent Friday she said that the city is not facing any other lawsuits related to the interchange.

West Des Moines City Attorney Richard Scieszinski the city would defend against the complaint, file an answer in court, and denied the claims had “any validity.” He said that to his knowledge, there had been no other public complaints or lawsuits related to the safety of the diamond interchange.

“For whatever reason it caused some problem with the driver of the vehicle,” Scieszinski said in a phone interview. “Of course he was intoxicated, and I think that probably had more to do with it than anything.”

The interstate interchange project broke ground in October 2014 and the Farrell family says that the cities ordered the contractors to have the new interchange ready by December 2015.

The cities opened the interchange on Dec. 1 even though it was a first of its kind in Iowa, and the public had raised concerns because it required drivers to move on the left side of oncoming traffic, rather than the right, according to the complaint.

“Because of the unnatural feel of driving on the left side of oncoming traffic, drivers unfamiliar with the design experience confusion when entering the intersection of the [diverging diamond interchange] that causes them to move from the right-hand side to the left-hand side of the street,” the 13-page lawsuit states.

When drivers first used the new interchange, the cities failed to maintain essential safety features in a “safe and proper condition,” the family alleges.

An investigation revealed that Beary was driving at 102 mph when the vehicles collided and his blood alcohol content was 0.223, almost three times the legal limit to drive, the Register reported.

Officer Farrell died at the scene, leaving behind her daughter, identified as R.F. in the complaint, husband Jesse Farrell, and her parents, Stephen Michalski and Peggy Maschke. They are all plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

In addition to the two cities, named defendants include Peterson Contractors, Roadsafe Traffic Systems, Voltmer Electric, Par Electrical Contractors, MidAmerican Energy and the law firm Kirkham, Michael & Associates.

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