Federal government asks for more time to respond to road washout lawsuit

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The federal government is asking for more time to respond to a lawsuit filed on behalf of the family members of two people who died in a 2019 road washout, as well as the two men who were injured.

In a motion filed May 26, the federal government states, “Due to the seriousness of the claims and the complexity of the circumstances, the United States requests additional time to compile the necessary information and prepare its response.”

In July 2019, heavy rains caused a culvert along Bureau of Indian Affairs Route 3 to collapse. The road washed out as a result. The lawsuit, filed April 8, states that the heavy rain and darkness prevented the washout from being visible to commuters. As a result, the lawsuit says, four people crashed into the creek.

According to the lawsuit, 60-year-old Trudy Peterson was traveling to her shift as a nurse around 4:40 a.m. on July 9, 2019, when her car fell through the opening caused by the washout and crashed into the creek below. Peterson died from her injuries.

“The daughter of the woman who passed away from Mobridge, getting a call that the culvert had washed out, checking her mom’s location on her cell phone on Life360 and seeing it pinging the last time from that spot right where the culvert was. That’s an experience she’s never going to forget and it’s changed her family in remarkable and tragic ways,” said Tim Purdon, who is representing the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

About 20 minutes after Peterson crashed, the lawsuit says 65-year-old James Vander Wal, a mail delivery contractor, was returning to his home from his mail route when he also crashed into the creek. Vander Wal also died from his injuries.

Two other men, Steven Willard, who was 50 years old at the time of the incident, and Evan Thompson, who was 31 at the time, were injured after they also crashed into the creek. The lawsuit says after the crash, the men discovered that neither of them had working phones. Thompson, a bus driver for Sitting Bull College, sat near the emergency exit of the bus and Willard sat on top of his car to wait for help to arrive, the lawsuit states.

Another driver came across the washout at sunrise and called 911 for help. Thompson and Willard were rescued by first responders, but the lawsuit states that both men continue to suffer from injuries sustained in the crash.

The lawsuit states the United States BIA failed “to safely inspect, maintain, and erect warning signage for a culvert in the Standing Rock Reservation. Despite knowing of serious safety concerns with this culvert for years and that its replacement was needed, the Bureau of Indian Affairs chose to do nothing,” the complaint alleges.

The lawsuit seeks damages to be determined at trial.

“The BIA has a responsibility in Indian country across North Dakota, South Dakota, and the Great Plains region to make sure the roads are safe,” said Purdon.

KX News reached out the Bureau of Indian Affairs several times, but did not receive a response.

In its motion, the federal government says it received notice of the suit on April 12. It is requesting until Aug. 13 to answer or plead to the complaint.

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