BREMERTON — Kitsap County will pay Regina Monzon, of Bremerton, $5 million for injuries she received when she was struck by a vehicle in a poorly lit crosswalk as she and her brother walked to school.
In addition, the county will pay Monzon’s brother, James, $500,000 to compensate him for the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffers. The county also agreed to install an additional street light at the crosswalk within three months.
The settlement was announced Feb. 15 in Pierce County Superior Court.
“Our theory of liability, and what we’ve presented the last four or five weeks … is that the county needed to have another light there,” said Henry Jones, one of Regina Monzon’s attorneys.
Monzon was a 17-year-old Olympic High School student on Dec. 12, 2012 when she was struck by a vehicle in a crosswalk in a school zone on Central Valley Road at Conifer Drive. She lost all of her hair when it was caught in the vehicle’s drive shaft, and she also sustained a severe brain injury. Her brother, James was not struck by the vehicle but saw his sister struck and severely injured.
In opening statements on Jan. 12 in Pierce County Superior Court, attorney Ken Friedman of the Bremerton law firm of Friedman Rubin talked of how Monzon’s life was changed that day — and why the county was responsible.
“When the county creates and maintains a crosswalk that’s not safe, where the lighting is inadequate, where a child is hit, if it’s not reasonably safe, then they are negligent,” Friedman said in an opening statement featured on KIRO7 News. “She’s going to have to live with these injuries for the rest of her life.”
Kitsap County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Ione George countered, “What this case is about is two high school students who were late for school and were hurrying to get there on time, [and] a distracted driver who wasn’t paying attention as she approached a well-lit, well-signed, marked crosswalk.”
After the settlement was announced, George said “we feel very sympathetic to Regina and her family. This is a tragic thing that happened.” But she argued that the driver’s “level of attentiveness” was to blame. She said the driver had declared bankruptcy, so “we resolved the case because there was too much financial risk for our community.”
The driver, Sandra Bloechl, said she didn’t see Monzon because of the road conditions. It was raining and dark at the time.
(After the collision, Bloechl was cited for “second-degree negligent driving with a vulnerable victim,” paid a fine and performed community service, George said. Bloechl also reached a settlement, for $100,000, with Monzon on Feb. 15. She admitted negligence — “She believes she shared a certain amount of responsibility,” Jones said — but she did not admit liability, saying the county was responsible for the poor lighting at the crosswalk.)
It wasn’t the first time a pedestrian was struck at that crosswalk. A girl was struck by a vehicle there in January 2009 at 7:13 a.m. — nearly the same time that Monzon was struck, according to a Dec. 21, 2012, story in the Central Kitsap Reporter.
Part of the problem, Jones said, is the placement of the existing street light in relation to the crosswalk. A pedestrian in the crosswalk would be backlit, silhouetted and difficult to see by a driver heading southbound. To a northbound driver, the pedestrian would be frontlit and visible.
Bloechl “did not see Regina in the crosswalk,” Jones said.
In 2009, Kitsap County received a federal grant for safety improvements on rural county roads.
“Part of the grant involved identifying several locations with collisions attributed to dark areas of the roadway,” the county public works department reported at the time. “Several new street lights were installed at intersections, and along a couple of short sections of rural roadways.”
In 2010, the county obtained another grant, not limited to rural roads, to identify 21 locations “where improved street lighting could improve safety.”
Two locations on Central Valley Road were identified as places that would benefit from improved lighting: the intersection of Levin Road north of Waaga Way and the intersection of Foster Drive, just north of Fairview near Cottonwood Elementary.
Central Valley Road south of Waaga Way has three Central Kitsap District schools; Woodlands Elementary, Cottonwood Elementary and Fairview Junior High are all within one mile of each other.
From 2001-12, at least seven collisions involving pedestrians and one involving a bicyclist occurred on Central Valley Road between those schools, a distance of less than half a mile. Six of those collisions occurred at or before 7:30 a.m., when students are walking to school.
Several complaints to the county public works department between 2009 and 2012 raised concerns about student pedestrian safety.
“Students are walking in the area in all types of weather and in all levels of darkness,” one complaint stated.
Another expressed concern about the small size of the road’s shoulders and lack of any sidewalks; there are no sidewalks along that stretch of road past all three schools. Pedestrians are more than twice as likely to be struck by a vehicle in locations without sidewalks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2012, a resident again raised concerns about the street’s safety, especially for an area with three schools: “We need to have better, more visible signage on Central Valley Road to protect the children, from three schools, all who must travel along this road during dark, rainy or just busy traffic times.”
‘A lifelong journey for her’
Living with her injuries will be a “lifelong journey for her,” Jones said of Monzon. “She is a remarkable woman. She has overcome so much and I believe she will be able to go on and lead a productive life.”
Her hair loss is permanent. Her brain injury, which Jones termed severe, is permanent too. With help, she graduated from Olympic High School in 2013; she will need accommodation to earn the degree she’ll need to work with children in some capacity. She has PTSD and suffers panic attacks.
“We’re hopeful that, with time, she will recover from that,” Jones said.
Her long hair was important to her. She regularly grew her hair to her waist, then cut it for Locks of Love, a practice she started when two of her aunts were battling breast cancer.
As she tries to find her new path in life, Monzon is pleased that her case will result in safer conditions at that crosswalk.
“I know what happened to me is very tragic, and it changed my life,” Monzon said. “What got me through the healing process is I’m still here. I was lucky to survive what I’ve gone through. It makes me feel a little better that the area will be made safer so no one else has to go through what I’ve gone through.”
— With information from an earlier story in the Central Kitsap Reporter.