Records show the county settled for $3.5M after deeming the collision highly preventable, demonstrating the vague legal standards for officer driving.

By Brandon Block / / June 25, 2024

An urgent call crackled through Pierce County Sheriff Deputy Eric Lopez’s patrol radio.

Shots fired. A drive-by.

Lopez booted up his lights and siren, maneuvering his white Ford Explorer south past Tacoma city limits. Lopez stopped to check for cross traffic before proceeding through three stop-signed intersections and one traffic light, he later wrote in a statement submitted by a union-appointed attorney. 

Driving west on a four-lane arterial, Lopez steered into the left lane and started passing vehicles. He accelerated past the 40-mile-per-hour speed limit, hitting 60, then 70. As he approached a red light at a major intersection, he noticed traffic beginning to pile up and slow to a stop near a Wells Fargo bank. 

It can be hard to predict how drivers respond to a siren, Lopez later said during a deposition. Many pull over the right, but some pull over to the left. Others abruptly stop. That’s why it’s crucial to leave enough time to respond to unpredictable road conditions, multiple Pierce County law enforcement officers later testified in civil proceedings.

As he approached the red light, Lopez did not slow down. He pressed the pedal as far as it would go. He passed 80 miles per hour as he veered over the yellow double line into oncoming eastbound lanes, which looked empty. 

He hit 81. He hit 82. In the moment before he noticed a small green Honda turning left, Lopez was driving 83 miles per hour.

“There’s no way he could stop,” one witness told a Washington State Patrol investigator. “He was just going too fast.”

Lopez swerved and jammed on the brakes, but an investigative analysis later concluded that he would have needed 337 feet in front of him to avoid a collision. He had just 120 feet.

His patrol vehicle T-boned the Honda, crumpling the driver’s side door and pushing it more than 45 feet over a curb and onto a rocky embankment. The driver of the Honda, a 31-year-old mother named Maria Teresa Magana Bedolla, died at the scene. Her two adult passengers suffered injuries. 

Lopez reported no injuries. He returned to duty two weeks later.

Newly obtained records on the April 2020 crash detail how investigators deferred to Lopez’s judgment on speeding into oncoming lanes and shifted responsibility to Magana Bedolla. The county prosecutor’s office declined to pursue charges despite an internal sheriff’s department review board classifying the collision as highly preventable. In 2022, Pierce County officials quietly settled with Magana Bedolla’s family for $3.5 million. 

A photograph from the scene of the accident shows the aftermath of the collision between Deputy Lopez’s Ford Explorer and Maria Teresa Magana Bedolla’s Honda Civic. (Courtesy of Washington State Patrol)

Washington law permits first responders to speed and drive in the wrong lane en route to emergencies if they use lights and sirens. And though officers can be held criminally liable if their driving is found to be reckless, the legal standard used across the nation – which requires officers to show “due regard” for others’ safety – can be subjective and difficult to enforce.

Cascade PBS found that international first responder organizations strongly discourage driving in the wrong lane, and police practices experts have described driving choices similar to Lopez’s as a dangerous breach of duty.

Minutes after the deadly crash, another deputy arrived at the scene of the reported drive-by shooting. A resident at the house told him no shooting had occurred. The deputy spent two minutes and 21 seconds at the scene before clearing it.

‘Due regard’ for safety

King County prosecutors recently cited the broad authority granted to emergency responders and high burden of proof needed for criminal charges in explaining their decision not to charge Seattle Police Department officer Kevin Dave for striking and killing 23-year-old graduate student Jaahnavi Kandula in a South Lake Union crosswalk in 2023.

In a 45-page memo, prosecutors concluded that they lacked sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Dave drove in a “reckless” manner or with “disregard for the safety of others,” two of the legal thresholds to convict on vehicular homicide or assault (intoxication is the third). 

Raising the bar further, the prosecutors argued they would need to prove that Dave drove with “conscious” disregard for safety, an interpretation based on a 1999 Washington state appeals court ruling

King County prosecutors acknowledged that Dave’s speed (74 mph) was a factor in the crash, but cited several others they believed clouded their case: Washington’s legal exemptions that allow officers to speed, the urgency of the call (an overdose) and their judgment that Kandula was partially responsible for the crash. 

The Seattle City Attorney’s office ultimately fined Dave $5,000 for negligent driving in the second degree, a traffic infraction. Since then, PubliCola has revealed that when the crash occurred Dave was also driving without a valid Washington state driver’s license.

Like many states, Washington’s law contains the phrase “due regard,” an ambiguous standard that articulates a duty for officers to “drive with due regard for the safety of all persons” while operating emergency vehicles. But it does not address any specific maneuvers like driving into opposing lanes. 

The Pierce County Sheriff’s Department policy manual largely reiterates state law. 

Those subjective policies make it difficult to hold officers responsible for dangerous driving, said William T. McClure, one of the attorneys who represented Magana Bedolla’s estate in the civil lawsuit. Even when a speeding officer causes someone’s death, lawyers cannot point to a specific policy the officer broke.

During the civil proceedings, McClure deposed six Pierce County officers and asked them to define the limits of how aggressively deputies can drive to crime scenes.

“Every single person I asked about how to drive during a priority call, how to approach intersections, how fast is too fast,” McClure said. “Every single deputy gave a little bit of a different answer.”

Some commonalities emerged among the deputies’ answers: Officers need to slow when approaching red lights, make sure intersections are clear before proceeding and respond to other drivers who may not see them.

“I don’t want to say the policy and the culture allow for unfettered reckless driving,” McClure said. “There are limits, they’re just kind of undefined and amorphous limits.”

State Patrol investigates

The Washington State Patrol issued a 134-page report on the Lopez crash that includes witness interviews, speed and brake data retrieved from the Ford Explorer’s internal system, reconstructions of the crash and mathematical calculations estimating the speed of impact and distance the cars traveled after impact. 

The report notes that Magana Bedolla was in the left-turn lane when Lopez approached and likely was not expecting a car to come up from behind her in the wrong direction. 

It also notes that Lopez’s speed made it impossible for him to brake in time to avoid a collision. But the report’s authors repeatedly condoned Lopez’s speed and decision to drive in the wrong lane, shifting the responsibility for the crash onto Magana Bedolla, who they write “turned left directly in front of Deputy Lopez.” 

“It was reasonable for Deputy Lopez to be driving in an expeditious manner due to the call for service involving shots fired,” wrote State Patrol technical specialist Matthew Rogers, adding that Lopez “perceived the hazard and reacted to the hazard with the tactics of braking and steering to the left, in an attempt to avoid a collision.”

One of the injured passengers told investigators she did not hear the sirens until the last second before they were struck. State Patrol investigators described this as Magana Bedolla “failed to see or hear the police car approaching her from the rear.”

In another section, Rogers noted that witnesses heard the sirens, implying that she should have too. “It is unknown why Maria Teresa Magana Bedolla did not stop or pull over to the right when Deputy Lopez was approaching her location,” Rogers wrote.

Investigators did not interview Lopez, who instead submitted a three-page written statement through his union-appointed attorney.

Rated highly preventable

The April 10, 2020 collision that killed Magana Bedolla was not Deputy Lopez’s first crash. He later testified to involvement in multiple previous crashes, some of which had been reviewed by Pierce County Sheriff Department’s internal Accident Review Board. That eight-person board consists of officers appointed by the sheriff and assesses evidence to determine the preventability of department collisions, assigning points on a scale of zero to 10.

According to the board’s policy manual, zero to three points mean the crash was unpreventable, or the damage was minor and the car remains drivable. Scores between six and 10 points are assigned when a crash causes major injury and indicates a “major degree of employee error.” 

Lopez’s crash scored nine out of 10 points. 

Despite finding his crash to be highly preventable, the board’s sole recommendation was for Lopez to retake an emergency vehicle operations course. He testified that he returned to patrol two weeks later. 

Lopez did not respond to an interview request from Cascade PBS. But during a 2021 deposition, he said he felt partially responsible and admitted to driving “a little bit too fast” just before the crash, though he believed he was still in control of his vehicle at the time. 

A Washington State Patrol officer’s shadow falls across the detached trunk hood of Bedolla’s car in this photo taken just after the accident. (Courtesy of Washington State Patrol)

“I don’t feel I was the sole reason for this,” Lopez said during the deposition. Asked to explain further, he added: “That was the vehicle turning in front of me, directly in front of me, giving me no opportunity for a way out.”

“‘Don’t make that turn’ is what I was thinking,” Lopez continued. “And I started to try to avoid the collision with her and turned even to the next lane over and applying [sic] my brake and trying to minimize my speed as much as possible and continuously just turning left.”

Pierce County Sheriff’s Department would not say if Lopez has been involved in any more crashes since 2020. Senior department leadership declined to discuss their response to the crash that killed Magana Bedolla, but a spokesperson confirmed they have not made any changes to their priority response policies or altered any vehicle training modules since then.

$3.5 million settlement

Magana Bedolla’s estate – which includes her three children and their guardian – filed a civil lawsuit blaming her death on Lopez’s excessive speed and choice to drive in the wrong lane. 

The Pierce County Council unanimously approved the $3.5 million settlement with Magana Bedolla’s estate at its July 19, 2022 meeting as part of a consent calendar vote, an expedited process typically used for routine matters. Council members did not discuss the settlement or note its passage during the meeting.

Cascade PBS reached out to co-chair Marty Campbell, who presided over the settlement vote, chair Ryan Mello, and council member Jani Hitchen, who represents the district where the crash occurred. None agreed to discuss the crash or their decision to quietly approve the settlement as part of the consent calendar.

(The county separately paid $80,000 to settle a claim from one of the passengers, Alicia Lemus-Huante, on Jan. 12, 2021, according to claims data posted on the county’s website.)

Court records indicate the Magana Bedolla settlement will be split evenly among her three children after subtracting attorneys’ fees and other costs. The money will be held in a trust until their 28th birthdays, court orders show.

Experts assess risky driving

While state laws and police departments’ internal driving rules typically offer a wide berth to officer discretion, experts say there’s some consensus on best practices.

A 2023 Department of Justice report on vehicular pursuits advises terminating a pursuit if the suspect is driving in the wrong lane, though it does not specifically address driving to 911 calls.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs provides model policies for safe emergency vehicle response. They advise firefighters against driving in the wrong lane in most circumstances.

“Operating emergency vehicles in opposing traffic lanes is extremely hazardous under all conditions and should only be considered under exceptional circumstances (i.e., if there is no alternate route of travel),” the guide reads.

The guide further notes that many departments have policies limiting speed to no more than 20 mph when those exceptional circumstances permit driving in the wrong lane.

Mark Meredith, a police practices expert at Robson Forensic who served in the Chula Vista Police Department for 25 years, said driving against traffic is heavily discouraged. 

“The national standard is generally don’t do it,” Meredith said. 

When consulting on civil lawsuits, Meredith considers a wide range of factors to determine whether the officer exercised “due regard” – including the nature of the call, the officer’s speed, traffic, weather, pedestrian patterns, time of day, use of lights and sirens and the officer’s history.

While he refrained from commenting on Lopez’s actions specifically, Meredith outlined a hypothetical example of excessively risky officer driving in an article published on the Robson Forensic website. The imagined officer speeds through rush-hour traffic at 80 miles per hour in the opposing lane.

“While the officer is traveling in the wrong direction, a citizen makes a legal left turn, onto a side street,” Meredith wrote. “The civilian driver is broadsided by the police vehicle.”

Studies have also found that at high speeds, emergency vehicles may “outrun” their siren’s audible range.

“People in front of you are not necessarily going to hear your sirens [at 80 mph],” Meredith said. “My conclusion in that hypothetical situation was, yeah, that’s incredibly dangerous and that officer was not driving with due regard.”

April 10, 2020

Maria Teresa Magana Bedolla just wanted to get to the bank.

The Lakewood resident had left the warehouse, where she worked full-time as a janitor, with two of her co-workers, hoping to get an early start on Friday errands by depositing their paychecks during the lunch break.

Before long she’d be due at her second job at an IHOP. The hours were crazy, but the single mother dreamed of sending her three children to college one day, the family’s attorney recalled.

She maneuvered her green Honda Civic into the left-turn lane. In the passenger seat, Alicia Lemus-Huante held her work phone to her ear. She hung up the call and started relaying the message to her colleagues when Magana Bedolla began turning the wheel to the left.

“I heard her draw her breath in sharply and turn toward me,” Lemus-Huante later wrote in a court declaration translated from Spanish. “After the collision, Maria’s head was lying on my left shoulder and chest and I could feel her repeatedly trying to lift her head up off of my shoulder and I kept telling her not to move.”

“Then, after about a minute, I could feel her full weight come onto my shoulder and I knew that she was no longer conscious.”

Family photos show Magana Bedolla and her children at home with painted faces; outside a school proudly holding certificates of excellence; nestled among her kids in the grassy median of a parking lot; and bundled up in the warehouse break room for a co-worker’s birthday celebration. On the break room table is a flan, a custard dessert she enjoyed baking for community events.

In photos, Magana Bedolla often smiles with her mouth closed.

Four years later, a raised curb now runs about four or five car lengths long, separating the east and westbound lanes of 112th Street where the crash occurred. A row of yellow flex posts prevents cars from crossing into opposing lanes, as Lopez did, or making the left turn that Magana Bedolla attempted. 

According to the county’s website, the changes are part of a broader construction project to widen 112th Street, intended to increase capacity and relieve congestion. Right of Way plans for the project indicate it was plotted in May 2020 and approved in June 2020.

The rocky embankment where the two entangled vehicles came to rest has been replaced with shrubs, a sidewalk and newly planted trees. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Pierce County Sheriff Deputy Eric Lopez reached speeds of 83mph in the wrong lane just moments before hitting a green Honda and killing the driver Maria Teresa Magana Bedolla in April 2020. (Illustration by Genna Martin/Cascade PBS, Photo: Courtesy of Washington State Patrol)

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