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Saturday, August 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Fatal accident may be test case for new law

Seattle Times staff reporter

A 21-year-old Everett man arrested after a fatal chain-reaction crash on Interstate 5 on Friday could be the first person to be charged under the state's year-old "Maria's Law," which makes failure to secure a load a criminal act when someone is injured or killed.

The man was driving a black Ford F150 north on Interstate 5 in Shoreline around 11:15 a.m. when a metal shelving unit flew off the bed, Trooper Kelly Spangler said.

The driver of a Honda Civic coupe swerved left to avoid the shelves and was T-boned by a Lincoln Town Car, Spangler said. The Honda then hit two other cars before coming to rest against the jersey wall, partially on the shoulder and in the HOV lane, she said.

The impact from the Town Car probably killed the man instantly, Spangler said. Two other motorists were treated for minor injuries.

The driver of the Ford pickup kept going, Spangler said.

The victim was identified as Gavin Coffee, 43, of Lake Forest Park. The accident, just south of Northeast 175th Street, as well as a nearby, unrelated semi-truck fire about an hour later in the southbound lanes, snarled I-5 traffic for hours. Drivers who tried to avoid the mishaps also clogged Highway 99 and Interstate 405, the State Patrol said.

Just before the accident, Coffee was on the phone with the pastor of his family's church, City Cavalry Chapel, said his mother-in-law, Sharon Evans.

"The pastor of the church was talking to Gavin and he heard him say, 'Wow! ... Wow!' and then he heard the sounds of the crash," said Evans.

She said Coffee was a volunteer children's minister and father of four children ages 5, 9, 11 and 13, with a fifth on the way.

Less than an hour after the fatal crash, a 77-year-old Lake Forest Park man contacted police and claimed responsibility, Spangler said. The man, the registered owner of the pickup, was arrested and questioned, but detectives suspected he was covering up for a family member, Spangler said. Troopers determined the man's grandson was driving the pickup, and he was booked into King County Jail on Friday afternoon, Spangler said.

The Seattle Times is not naming the suspect because he has not been charged with a crime.

While the State Patrol has yet to send the case against the 21-year-old to King County prosecutors for a charging decision, Spangler said Maria's Law "would absolutely apply."

Because there is no precedent, it is unclear whether the pickup's driver or the person who loaded the truck, if it was someone else, could be held responsible for the death.

The law is named for Maria Federici, a Renton woman blinded and permanently disfigured when a piece of particle board from a home entertainment unit flew off a trailer, impaling her windshield and shattering her face as she drove south on I-405 in February 2004.

The law, which took effect in July 2005, makes it a gross misdemeanor if an unsecured load causes an injury or death and carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. A driver whose unsecured items cause property damage can be charged with a misdemeanor.

Previously, drivers who lost their loads could be cited only for a traffic infraction with a maximum fine of $250.

In June, a second, related law went into effect, making failure to secure a load a criminal act if it results in a death or injury. As a result, victims of unsecured loads are now eligible for money from a crime victims fund. Spangler couldn't say if the 21-year-old and the truck's owner could both be held responsible for the man's death.

"It's a gray area — we've never gone here before because it's a new law," she said.

Spangler said the State Patrol also is considering whether to ask prosecutors to pursue charges against the grandfather for lying to investigators.

Contacted Friday night at his Lake Forest Park home, the truck owner said his family was having a difficult time. He described his grandson as "a damn fine boy. The best. I wish it was me going to jail instead of him, but I wasn't driving, and I guess that's the law."

The man said his grandson had been taking the load of shelves to the dump. "It's one of those terrible things that happen," the man said. "I'm damned sorry about it. I don't know what else to say."

The Times is not naming the man because he could face charges.

Dan Satterberg, chief of staff for King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng, said the case will be the first test of Maria's Law in the county and most likely, the state. Until his office has a chance to review Friday's crash, Satterberg said it is tough to say who is at fault since the statute doesn't say specifically that a driver who loses a load is responsible for a death or injury. The responsible party, he said, could be the person who loaded the vehicle.

If the case went to a jury, prosecutors would have to prove criminal negligence, Satterberg said.

In this particular case, prosecutors also would need to prove that the loss of the metal shelves from the back of the pickup was a proximate cause of the victim's death.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

Information from Seattle Times staff reporter Christine Clarridge is included in this report.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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