Commissioners, IDL named in suit

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PRIEST RIVER — A pair of Bonner County commissioners and the Idaho Department of Lands are named as defendants in a wrongful death suit linked to the closure of a bridge on East River Spur Road.

The estate of Boris Vrbeta, in addition to other landowners and tenants who relied on the span across the northern prong of East River, are seeking unspecified damages in excess of $10,000, according to a lawsuit filed in 1st District Court on July 5.

The saga of East River Spur Road, formerly known as East River Road, began in 1934 with an easement granted by the state of Idaho for construction and maintenance of the route, which is located north of Priest River. The suit alleges that the county and the state jointly maintained East River Spur Road and the bridge from 1990 to 1998, despite threats from the county that it would no longer work on the road.

A new bridge deck was installed in the late 1990s, around the time Boris and Rachel Vrbeta and other landowners purchased their properties on either side of the bridge. The suit alleges that the county and state intentionally or negligently failed to maintain the route, causing the bridge’s sufficiency rating to plummet. The state signaled in 2015 that it would stop maintaining the span because of rapid deterioration even though it had been deteriorating for nearly three decades, the suit said.

Bonner County purchased the easement in 2016 and acknowledged that a bridge replacement would cost up to $50,000.

Commissioners Jeff Connolly and Dan McDonald advised IDL in 2017 that they wanted to discontinue maintenance on the road for budgetary reasons, which the state objected to, according to the suit. Meanwhile, the bridge continued to molder.

Connolly and McDonald, the suit asserts, closed the bridge in 2017 due to safety concerns and unsuccessfully attempted to get landowners to execute an easement which left landowners responsible for road maintenance. Commissioners subsequently adopted resolutions closing the bridge and declaring the road an unmaintained right of way.

The bridge’s closure trapped some landowners and forced the closure of a home-based chiropractic clinic, causing the Vrbetas to lose rental income, the suit said.

Boris Vrbeta, 85, developed pneumonia after the bridge’s closure and had to be evacuated by paramedics, the suit states. However, they had to park more than 2 miles away because the ambulance couldn’t traverse the span and Boris Vrbeta had to be taken out on sled pulled by a snowmobile.

The suit does not allege that the bridge closure brought about the pneumonia. It alleges, however, that the extended medical evacuation aggravated his condition and hastened his demise from the lung infection.

“Instead of being able to be evacuated by ambulance, the actions and inactions caused the emergency personnel to carry Mr. Vrbeta from his property by snowmobile sled which further exacerbated his physical condition which was a substantial factor in causing his death,” Spokane attorneys Troy Nelson and Andrew Mitchell said in the 11-page civil complaint.

The suit does not say when Boris Vrbeta died, although an online memorial posted to the video-sharing site YouTube states he died in June 2018.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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