MANTI—Parents of two teenagers killed in an auto accident on Power Plant Road have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit alleging Sanpete County is responsible for the deaths because it knew about an unsafe hill on the road but failed to do anything about it.
The parents of Kody Wheeler and Julie Oldroyd, both of whom were killed in the accident, filed the suit on Nov 10, 2020. Because of the time it took for a Highway Patrol investigation to be completed, and because of COVID-19, the case is just coming to court now.
The plaintiffs in the case, Kody’s mother, Amber Wheeler, and Julie’s father, Darrell Oldroyd, stated the government entities were responsible for the deaths because, as Sanpete County Attorney Kevin Daniels puts it, “The road design is inherently dangerous, and the defendants did nothing to fix
it.” On May 3, 2019, two teenage boys who had been mud bogging (intentionally driving a vehicle through shallow water) in a flat-bed pickup just off Power Plant Road pulled onto the road and stopped on the west side of a steep hill near an old diversion dam.
A 2005 Hyundai Elantra being driven at a high rate of speed topped the hill at that moment, came to the bottom of the hill within seconds, and smashed into the pickup. The bed of the pickup nearly tore the roof off the Elantra. Three passengers in the Elantra died, and the two boys in the pickup were injured.
The drivers of the vehicles, both of whom were under 18, were charged and eventually sentenced. Both entered pleas-in-abeyance.
The lawsuit seeks more than $10 million each for Wheeler and Oldroyd in special, general, and punitive damages. The plaintiffs have demanded a jury trial.
When the case was filed, both the county and Mt. Pleasant City were named as defendants. Since the suit came to court, Mt. Pleasant City has been excluded from liability on grounds that the road where the accident occurred is a county road and outside of the city limits.
Daniels appeared in court on last Wednesday, Aug. 21, to argue his motion seeking exclusion of certain of the plaintiffs’ proposed witnesses.
The posted speed limit in the area is 35 mph. But Highway Patrol investigators estimated the Elantra’s speed as it topped the hill at 90 mph. “The real cause was speed,” Daniels said, “not the design of the road.”
In his pleadings, plaintiffs’ attorney Marshal S. Witt countered that the road design is a well-known “attractive nuisance” where young drivers can “catch air” by driving fast over the hill. He contended that Mt. Pleasant and the county officials were well aware of the hazard and had a duty to remove it.
“The facts are in our favor,” Daniels said last week. “There’s no doubt that this is a terrible tragedy, but the county is not at fault and should not be held liable.”
Daniels said he went to a museum in Mt. Pleasant and poured through what he characterized as “old, old books,” about the city’s infrastructural history. He discovered the road was built in the early 1930s by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corp. (CCC).
“I’ve taken a deep, deep dive into this case,” Daniels said after the hearing. “A lot depends on who designed and built the road.”
Daniels said the road was built the way it was due to issues with flooding, since in the early 1900s, Mt. Pleasant was hit with two big floods that caused widespread damage. That was the reason the diversion dam was built, as well as the road over the top of the dam levee.
Judge Marvin Bagley said he would rule on the county’s motion to exclude witnesses within 60 days of the hearing.
Daniels said he doesn’t know of any other motions coming before the court. He said by the end of the year, he hopes to move for summary judgment, which would essentially be dismissal of the suit.