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Families sue BIA over Standing Rock road washout

Families sue BIA over Standing Rock road washout

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The families of two people who died in a Standing Rock road washout in July 2019 are suing the BIA for wrongful death and negligence.

The families of two people who died nearly two years ago in a road washout on the Standing Rock Reservation have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Bismarck attorney Tim Purdon in September filed administrative claims on behalf of the families of Trudy Peterson, 60, and Jim Vander Wal, 65, both of Mobridge, South Dakota, who died in the chasm left behind when the culvert and road washed away in the middle of the night. The bureau had six months to deny the claims, settle them or simply not respond.

“They have not responded to us,” Purdon said.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court seeks unspecified monetary damages.

The bureau knew for several years that a culvert on BIA Road 3 was unsafe, and the agency’s failure to replace it led to the deaths of Peterson and Vander Wal when the culvert and road above it washed out in July 2019, the families allege.

Purdon also represents the drivers of two other vehicles -- one an empty Sitting Bull College bus -- who had to be rescued from the washout. Steven Willard and Evan Thompson were flown to Bismarck hospitals for treatment. Both suffered severe injuries, continued pain and limitations on function, the lawsuit states. They claim negligence on the part of the BIA.

All four people were traveling to jobs on the reservation or driving the road as part of their jobs in the dark, early morning hours of July 9, 2019.

The BIA has for too long turned a blind eye to failing highway infrastructure on reservations on the Great Plains, Purdon said in a statement to the Tribune.

“The BIA’s failure to provide safe highways has taken a heavy toll over the decades and has now resulted in this tragic incident that will forever impact these four families,” he said.

The BIA can’t delegate away its duty to inspect, maintain and erect warning signs for culverts along BIA roads on the Standing Rock Reservation by entering into a contract with the Standing Rock Tribe for road maintenance, the lawsuit alleges.

The BIA did not respond to a Tribune email request for comment.

Vander Wal was headed south from Bismarck with a load of U.S. mail destined for Mobridge. Peterson was on her way to Fort Yates from Mobridge to start a shift as a nurse at the Sanford dialysis facility. 

Flooding from 7 inches of rain during the night of July 8 and early morning of July 9 scoured the dirt that held the culvert under BIA Road 3, known locally as the Kenel Road. The culvert was bowing but not considered dangerous and had been identified for replacement seven years earlier, tribal Planning and Transportation Director Ron His Horse Is Thunder said at the time.

About 565 vehicles traveled the road daily before the washout, according to estimates from the North Dakota Department of Transportation. A double-cell, concrete box culvert was installed and the road has reopened.

Reach Travis Svihovec at 701-250-8260 or Travis.Svihovec@bismarcktribune.com

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