Stuck Lawsuit Over Sheriff John Snaza’s 2018 Car Accident Resurfaces Before Election

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A lawsuit filed against Thurston County over a collision caused by Sheriff John Snaza in 2018 has stalled in County Superior Court since it was filed nearly three years ago.

Louis Gillespie, a resident of the county, sued the county on Nov. 26, 2019, according to court records. In Gillespie’s complaint, he accuses Snaza of hitting his vehicle in Lacey on February 16, 2018 and causing “significant personal injury, loss of wages and property” to Gillespie.

The Thurston County Sheriff’s Office recognized the incident shortly after it happened, The Olympian previously reported. But at the time, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office said no one was injured in the crash.

Fast forward to 2022, when Snaza campaigns to win another term as sheriff while fending off criticism from his challenger, Deputy Derek Sanders. Recently, details and interpretations of Gillespie’s case have been widely shared on the internet, raising questions about the crash, Snaza’s role and how the county handled the case.

According to Tara Tsehlana, spokesman for the Public Prosecution Service, the province has agreed to accept the blame for the collision. However, the parties have not agreed on compensation.

Gillespie’s attorneys Kamela James and Eric Fong told The Olympian the county initially denied guilt, and has continued to dispute the extent to which Gillespie’s injuries and related effects resulted from the collision.

As a result, a jury trial was set to begin on October 17, but records show scheduling conflicts led to the cancellation.

The Public Prosecution Service expects the trial to be moved to May 2023, Tsehlana said. She denied that the election had any impact on delaying the case.

Snaza told The Olympian he was not involved in the case and only learned about it last week. He declined to comment on the county’s stance on the matter, saying he didn’t know enough about it.

“Obviously, when I heard about it, I just said, ‘Great, it’s being used against me. Why is this all of a sudden coming out at election time?’ Snaza said. “It’s politics.”

How did the crash happen?

The crash occurred at approximately 7:20 a.m. on Feb. 16, 2018, as Snaza drove west on Pacific Avenue Southeast and approached Sleater Kinney Road in his county-issued 2015 Ford Explorer.

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The Sheriff’s Office said at the time that Snaza had hit a pickup truck that had stopped in front of him. Specifically, the Sheriff’s Office described the incident as a two-vehicle collision, The Olympian previously reported.

From Gillespie’s perspective, Snaza was unable to stop in time as he braked in front of traffic, causing the collision. And Gillespie, 33 at the time, claimed the collision pushed his 1988 Toyota Tacoma into the vehicle in front of it, turning it into a three-car accident.

A police report from Lacey, included in court documents, describes the same story, but with more detail.

According to the report, Snaza told a responding police officer that he was suffering from an “illness” and sneezed while driving. The sneeze reportedly caused Snaza to look away from the roadway shortly before the collision.

Gillespie told the officer he had stopped at a red light when Snaza’s vehicle hit his. Snaza immediately asked him if he was okay, to which Gillespie replied, “as far as I can judge now,” the report said.

The force of the impact shocked Gillespie and he complained of neck pain, according to the report. Doctors from Lacey Fire District 3 examined Gillespie at the scene, but he was released.

Doctors also examined the driver of the vehicle for Gillespie. He complained of back pain, but the doctors also released him on the spot.

According to the report, Snaza was wearing his service uniform at the time, but was driving an unmarked gray vehicle.

Snaza confirmed this sequence of events in an interview with The Olympian. He added that Gillespie initially told him he was feeling “fine”, and has not spoken to him since.

“I know he was walking around and saying he was fine,” said Snaza. “To be honest, a lot of people do that and then a day or two later they realize they’re hurt.”

Gillespie declined to comment on this story, but the Olympian was able to talk to his lawyers.

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the lawsuit

Gillespie’s complaint alleges that Snaza’s actions are negligence, but Snaza is not listed as a defendant. Gillespie sued the county for damages because Snaza was acting as an employee of the county at the time.

Court records show that Gillespie’s injuries included shoulder and back injuries that affected his ability to do his job. His lawyers, James and Fong, said they had previously requested the province to recognize and compensate their client.

“They didn’t make an offer, so we were in a situation where we had to file a lawsuit,” James said.

To defend itself against these allegations, the county hired Dynan and Associates, PS, a law firm in Tacoma. According to court records, Thurston County Deputy Prosecutor Rick Peters also served as co-counsel for the county.

In a prepared statement, Tsehlana, of the prosecution, said they have hired outside counsel because they do not have the resources to respond to extensive lawsuits alone.

“It’s much more cost-effective to hire external consultants as needed rather than full-time in-house DPAs for this role,” Tsehlana said. “That’s why it’s our standard to hire outside counsel to manage lawsuits.”

The county had spent $127,283 as of Friday on the defense and indemnification of this case, according to Tsehlana. She added that this amount is part of the county’s deductible and any costs above the deductible will be covered by insurance.

In their initial response to the complaint, county attorneys admitted that the collision happened but denied that Snaza’s actions caused the significant injuries, loss of wages and property that Gillespie’s attorneys described.

In addition, they denied that Snaza’s actions were negligence and suggested that Gillespie could be guilty of his own damage.

Since then, both sides have gathered evidence and witnesses. Gillespie’s lawyers, for their part, have listed his doctors, family and friends as witnesses.

The province has now hired its own experts. In one affidavit, dated Sept. 27, 2021, county attorneys present a doctor’s note that says Gillespie’s low back pain was the result of a pre-existing condition and was not entirely caused by the collision.

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“They hired three experts to minimize and deny that this high-speed crash, involving a total of two vehicles, was the cause of shoulder surgery and the need for future back surgery,” Fong said.

Gillespie’s lawyers said they wanted to impeach Snaza in June 2021, but the county declined to present him. James added that the county attorneys went so far as to say they would request a protective order for Snaza.

“I’ve received correspondence from his lawyers who said they saw no reason to impeach him as they essentially accepted liability for the collision,” James said.

Why the delay?

The case is evolving into a jury trial that has been repeatedly postponed. The Public Prosecution Service attributes these delays to COVID-19 and failed mediation.

“COVID has halted civil lawsuits over security concerns surrounding jury convening,” Tsehlana said. “When the trials started again, criminal trials were prioritized because of the speedy trial requirements.”

According to Tsehlana, there are more than 2,000 criminal cases that were in backlog as of Friday, meaning they had not yet been filed and are currently not going to trial.

The Public Prosecution Service denies that the elections played a role in the recent delays.

“The election does not affect the process or the timeline of this case,” Tsehlana said. “Maybe it’s helpful for the community to understand that this case is evolving like any typical insurance case.”

The most recent trial was scheduled for October 17, but Judge Carol Murphy approved a request to continue the trial on October 14.

Murphy reportedly had to preside over a criminal trial during the scheduled trial date, so the county attorney requested that the trial be postponed again, according to court records.

On behalf of Gillespie, attorney Morgan Cartwright, of the Law Offices of Kamela James, PLLC, responded “in opposition,” according to court records.

Murphy ordered the attorneys to work with the courts to set a new trial date. As of November 1, court records indicate that the new trial date had not yet been set.