The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

June 6, 2014

Parents: Deadly crash avoidable

WASECA — Coach Fred Statz likely thought he was in familiar territory as he drove home to North Mankato after attending a high school football banquet in Waseca on Nov. 12, 2012.

Something had changed, though, at the intersection of Waseca County Road 27 and old Highway 14, on the west edge of Waseca. Statz's parents, Bill and Kathy Statz, have filed a lawsuit against the state of Minnesota claiming that change cost their 25-year-old son his life.

Just three days before a Peterbilt semi tractor slammed into the driver's side of Statz's 1998 Mercury Marquis, state Department of Transportation employees had changed the intersection from a four-way stop into a two-way stop. For six years prior to that change, traffic passing on old Highway 14 had been required to either watch for a green light on a temporary set of stoplights or stop for a stop sign.

The truck was traveling west on old Highway 14 and Statz was traveling south on County Road 27. Statz had traveled that same route dozens of times before as he commuted to coach the Waseca High School football team during the previous two seasons. So his parents believe he thought the semi was going to stop before Statz attempted to turn right on old Highway 14. Instead, the semi tractor plowed into his car and killed him.

After studying the State Patrol investigation of the crash and doing some investigation on his own, Randall Knutson, the Mankato attorney representing Bill and Kathy Statz, agrees with their conclusion.

"The exact cause of the accident was removal of the signs," Knutson said. "The driver of the truck admitted he was slowing down, so I'm sure it appeared like he was going to stop."

Fred Statz grew up playing football in Cross Plains, Wis, where his parents still live. As a defensive tackle, he played on a state champion football team at nearby Middleton High School. Those skills also brought him to Minnesota State University, where he saw a lot of playing time his junior and senior years before graduating in fall 2010. Bill Statz said his son knew the game and was pursuing an ultimate goal of coaching in the NFL.

What made Fred Statz a good player and coach was his ability to read opposing players and teams, Bill Statz said. He would notice if offensive linemen were on their toes or flat footed, leaning on their hands or shifting their weight one way or another.

"Athletically, he was not the fastest or the biggest," Bill Statz said. "He was just good at reading the plays and making the right reaction. All his coaches said he could read everything so well."

Someone like that doesn't pull out in front of a semi tractor without thinking first, Bill Statz said. He suspects the semi driver was slowing down, causing his air breaks to rumble, so his son made the turn because he was thinking the semi driver was going to stop.

Prior to the lawsuit being filed in Waseca County District Court last month, the family also had named the semi driver and his employer, High Pressure Transports of Kingfisher, Okla., as defendants. That portion of the case was settled before the lawsuit was filed, so District Court Judge Larry Collins issued an order dropping them from the lawsuit.

"He was driving with a large load of anhydrous ammonia, so he had stricter regulations than others," Knutson said. "So we wanted to look at that more closely to see the last time he slept and check other things. When we checked the logs, everything was on the up-and-up. We agreed with the truck company that he didn't really do anything wrong."

Knutson knows suing the state is not an easy process. The Attorney General's Office already has filed a motion saying the case should be dismissed because the state is protected by discretionary immunity. That law basically means that the Department of Transportation can change traffic signs at its own discretion without the threat of being sued, Knutson said.

This case doesn't fit those guidelines, Knutson added. A temporary stoplight had been installed at the intersection in 2006 as the Highway 14 bypass project reached the Waseca area. As that project neared completion in August 2012, the stoplight was changed to a four-way stop by having flashing lights in all directions. Stop signs also were installed for all directions.

Responding to reports that people weren't stopping at the intersection, transportation employees removed the stop signs for old Highway 14, creating a two-way stop. Warning signs also should have been installed on County Road 27 so drivers, who had been passing through a four-way stop for six years, knew that crossing traffic was no longer required to stop, Knutson said.

Large signs reading "Cross traffic does not stop" were attached to two oversize stop signs a day or two after the crash.

"You can only have discretion for so far," Knutson said. "You can't do something that's dangerous to the public."

In addition to a maximum monetary award, the Bill and Kathy Statz also want their lawsuit to change current Department of Transportation regulations and procedures.

Officials at the Department of Transportation's headquarters in Mankato declined to comment.

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