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Families of three Gretna girls sue Sarpy County over fatal crash

Families of three Gretna girls sue Sarpy County over fatal crash

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The site of a June 2019 car crash that killed four Gretna High School students and injured another at Platteview Road near 180th Street outside Springfield.

The families of three Gretna girls sued Sarpy County on Friday, blaming a deficient design of Platteview Road, among other things, for their daughters’ deaths.

In the 32-page lawsuit, the parents of three of the teens who died — Abigail Barth, 16, Alexandria Minardi, 15, and Addisyn Pfeifer, 16 — say they want the county to fix Platteview Road at 180th Street, along with other stretches of the county’s southern thoroughfare. The families have also asked a judge to declare unconstitutional Nebraska’s $5 million cap on how much governmental entities can pay out, if found liable.

“The question is, ‘How many more kids have to die on Platteview Road before Sarpy County does something about it?’” Omaha attorney Mike Coyle wrote in the lawsuit. “Plaintiffs ... hope a verdict against Sarpy County will motivate the County’s leaders to repair the area of Platteview Road where the Gretna Girls lost their lives.”

The mother of Kloe Odermatt, a 16-year-old who died in the crash, chose not to participate in the lawsuit. The parents of a fifth teen who survived the crash, Roan Brandon, have not filed a claim against the county.

Coyle provided a statement from the five families, on the eve of the second anniversary of the crash that devastated a community. The girls were fast friends and popular students about to enter their junior year.

“The families of Abby Barth, Alex Minardi, Addisyn Pfeifer, Kloe Odermatt and Roan Brandon remain in regular contact and continue to support and respect one another as we all strive to find peace with this tragedy,” the statement said.

The lawsuit could be a battle. Sarpy County did not act on the families’ tort claim, filed last year — and the county’s insurance carrier is expected to fight the lawsuit.

Under state law, a judge or jury must weigh how much blame belongs to each party in a negligence case. In this case, if the judge were to determine that Barth, who was driving, was 50% or more at fault, her family would not be able to collect against the county or the other defendants named. The families of the other two girls potentially could collect if a judge placed their blame at less than 50%. The families also sued Ford, the manufacturer of the 2017 Fusion the girls were in, and a company that erected the guardrail where the Fusion went off the road.

Megan Stubenhofer-Barrett, a spokeswoman for Sarpy County, said Friday that she would not comment on a lawsuit that is pending.

Shortly after the crash on June 17, 2019, the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office opened a criminal investigation into who provided the teens with alcohol that night, but that probe hasn’t produced any charges.

Sheriff’s officials have said Barth was driving 90 mph in the 55 mph zone. All but one of the girls had alcohol in her system. Pfeifer had none; Minardi’s blood alcohol content was .02, and Barth’s was .09, the sheriff has said.

The lawsuit disputes law enforcement’s estimate that the car was traveling 90 mph. But Coyle didn’t provide an alternate estimate.

“The Fusion was traveling nowhere near the speed as what the Sheriff’s Office has allegedly reported,” the lawsuit says.

After leaving the roadway, the Fusion came to rest in a ravine. A 911 call was placed from Barth’s cellphone at 10:56 p.m. and “lasted approximately 90 seconds, during which one or more of the females inside the Fusion were attempting to speak with 911 to be rescued.” Operators were apparently unable to discern what was being said.

At 11:11 p.m., a bystander called 911 to report a large fire at the southwest corner of 180th Street and Platteview Road. The bystander told 911 operators that people “were screaming from where the Fusion was on fire.” At 11:25 p.m., a fire/rescue squad arrived and worked on “extinguishing the fire that had engulfed the Fusion and spread to nearby trees and brush.”

Autopsies indicated that two of the girls died from impact and two died from smoke inhalation and burns.

Families of the victims arrived at the scene of the crash shortly afterward.

“The Barth, Minardi and Pfeifer parents attempted to console one another at the scene of the crash, hoping and praying their daughters were somehow still alive, that this had all been a misunderstanding, and that their teenage daughter would be coming home with them,” Coyle wrote. “This pain, agony and distress is something no parent should ever have to endure — that no parent should ever have to survive.”

While taking aim at state caps on collecting damages, the lawsuit says Sarpy County has insurance to pay for any damages and attorney’s fees incurred in the course of the case. “Any monetary damages ... will be paid by Sarpy County’s insurance carrier, not taxpayers.” The county spokeswoman said she believes that characterization is correct.

The lawsuit alleges that the deaths wouldn’t have happened if the county had followed a consultant’s recommendations for improvements to Platteview Road.

The roadway generally runs west-east between Nebraska Highway 31 in Gretna and U.S. Highway 75 in Bellevue and is dotted by hills and curves.

As the U.S. Highway 34 bridge was built over the Missouri River, area planning officials wondered what impact it would have on traffic on Platteview Road, theorizing that truckers would use it as a shortcut between Interstates 29 and 80. The county and the Metropolitan Area Planning Agency commissioned a study through civil engineering firm Olsson.

In 2014 and 2016, the engineering firm recommended widening and flattening Platteview Road in several places, including between 172nd Street and 186th Street.

“In the area of 180th Street, there are several crest and sag curves that are designed for speeds less than 40 mph,” the report said. Olsson recommended that the road be regraded, widened by 4 feet and outfitted with rumble strips along its edge. Such repairs were expected to cost $2.7 million.

The county did not make those changes. It is in the midst of widening Platteview Road to four lanes, starting from east to west. The project is currently focused on sections east of 108th Street, but the road will eventually expand to four lanes through at least 180th Street, Stubenhofer-Barrett said.

The lawsuit notes that the intersection was the site of another deadly wreck involving teens. In December 2006, a teenage driver had been drinking and driving 101 mph. He crashed at 180th and Platteview Road — and the crash killed two Gretna teens.

The lawsuit describes the pain and yearning of the Gretna girls’ families. It names as plaintiffs: Bradley and Amy Barth, John and Tonja Minardi and Justin and Wendy Pfeifer.

“They could not be with their teenage daughters when they died,” the lawsuit says. “They could not be by their daughters’ side to hold their hands, to comfort them in their final moments.

“They were best friends with each other, with the world in front of them.”

Four Gretna girls killed in car crash

Complete coverage of the tragic accident that took the lives of Alex Minardi, Addisyn Pfeifer, Kloe Odermatt and Abigail Barth.

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Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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