Oregon unaffiliated gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson is under scrutiny this week for her handling of a 2013 car crash in which Johnson, then a Democratic state senator, rear-ended and injured another driver who was coming to a stop at a red light in Scappoose.
At the time, news reports focused on Johnson’s serious injuries, which caused her to miss more than a month of the Legislative session and use a wheelchair for six months.
It escaped notice that Johnson, through her lawyers, subsequently cited her position as a state lawmaker to argue that the driver Johnson rear-ended, Melissa Gallentine, could not sue Johnson for personal injury because she was driving as part of her official work duties.
Willamette Week first reported Johnson’s efforts to avoid responsibility in the case on Wednesday, primarily highlighting a different but related argument Johnson made, that she was shielded from being served with a lawsuit during a legislative session.
When Johnson pushed for a judge to drop her as a defendant and leave only her employer, the state of Oregon, to answer for the crash, the Oregon Department of Justice, then as now led by Democrat Ellen Rosenblum, did not object.
But Gallentine’s lawyers argued a judge, not Rosenblum’s office, should determine whether Johnson’s inattentive driving in Scappoose was in fact part of her official duties as a legislator.
“A simple ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I’m responsible’ would have been greatly appreciated,’” Gallentine said by phone on Wednesday. “(Johnson) just kept forcing more the other aspect, which was, ‘I didn’t do anything wrong’ and trying to win a case, to show zero fault.”
Johnson has pledged that if elected governor, she will emphasize personal responsibility — specifically for Oregon’s homeless residents — and push for more government accountability.
On Wednesday, Johnson did not respond to a phone call seeking comment, and her campaign declined to comment and refused to answer questions emailed by The Oregonian.
Among the questions Johnson would not answer: Why did she believe the state of Oregon and taxpayers should take sole responsibility for her car crash? Was Johnson aware of her lawyers’ invocation of legislative immunity to defend against the $260,000 personal injury lawsuit? Did Johnson take any actions following the crash that demonstrated personal responsibility or accountability?
Christine Drazan, the Republican nominee for governor, weighed in Wednesday on social media. “This is a clear abuse of legislative immunity. No one should be above accountability or above the law, especially those in power. Oregonians are tired of self-serving politicians. We deserve leaders who follow the law and tell the truth,” she tweeted.
The Oregonian also asked Johnson’s campaign to comment on why the longtime state lawmaker has racked up so many traffic violations: a dozen since 1991, including failure to obey traffic devices and basic driving rules, speeding and failure to wear a seat belt, according to court records. Johnson was not wearing a seat belt at the time she crashed into Gallentine in 2013 in Columbia County, but she was not cited for that instance. All of Johnson’s traffic citations were in Multnomah County and only four occurred since she was elected to the state House in 2000.
In lieu of answering questions or commenting on Johnson’s actions, campaign spokesperson Jennifer Sitton questioned why news organizations would report on the incident. “This is literal ambulance chasing media doing the bidding of the party opposition researchers who are afraid of our campaign,” Sitton said in an email.
On Johnson’s campaign website, her “to-do list” includes “hold government accountable to deliver for the rest of us.” She recently released a campaign ad focused on homelessness in Oregon, showing Johnson driving past people and tents in Portland. “We should expect personal responsibility,” Johnson says.
Johnson is so far the most well-funded candidate for governor, with $8.9 million raised, thanks to $1.75 million from Nike co-founder Phil Knight and plentiful six-figure checks from other donors who typically support Republicans. That fundraising and support has made Johnson a threat to Democratic candidate Tina Kotek, former speaker of the state House, and Republican candidate Drazan, the former House minority leader, although both Kotek and Drazan can expect support from national groups including party associations.
Polling paid for and released by the Johnson campaign on Wednesday showed the candidate in second place just slightly behind Kotek, with Drazan in third.
On the day of the crash in April 2013, Gallentine was driving south on Highway 30 in Scappoose and slowing to a stop behind other drivers who were lined up at a red light. It was around 7 a.m., according to a news report.
“While applying her brakes, Gallentine viewed Johnson’s sport utility vehicle bearing down on her in her rear-view mirror,” according to the lawsuit Gallentine later filed against Johnson. Earlier, Gallentine had noticed a child moving in the backseat of a small Geo Metro car in front of her and she said the thought flashed through her mind that the child might not be wearing a seat belt. “That was one of the very first things I thought, ‘Oh my God, that kid’s going to die in a Geo Metro,” Gallentine said on Wednesday. Gallentine steered her Audi sedan into a neighboring lane; Johnson drove her Chevrolet Trail Blazer into the same lane and smashed into the back of Gallentine’s car, according to the lawsuit.
When Johnson’s SUV hit the Audi sedan, “it exploded the gas tank and took all of the doors in through the trunk and broke my seat,” Gallentine said on Wednesday.
Johnson said she was commuting to the Capitol at the time of the accident, and after Gallentine sued Johnson for personal injury in March 2015, Johnson’s lawyers argued that as a representative of state government she had immunity from being sued under Oregon’s Tort Claims Act. “At the time of the accident, defendant was in the performance of duty and/or acting within the course and scope of her public employment as an Oregon state legislator,” lawyers Jeremy R. James and Paul A. C. Berg wrote.
Johnson’s lawyers also argued that due to a clause in Oregon’s Constitution that prohibits anyone from suing lawmakers during legislative sessions, the Columbia County Circuit Court had no jurisdiction over Johnson until the 2015 legislative session concluded. At the same time, Johnson’s lawyers argued that Gallentine would miss the two-year statute of limitations if she filed her lawsuit any later.
Gallentine’s attorneys Mario Nicholas and Jan Sokol countered, “The legislative immunity granted under the Oregon Constitution is not carte blanche for legislators to act with impunity,” in a court filing in May 2015.
A Columbia County judge ultimately allowed Gallentine to refile her lawsuit against Johnson after the legislative session, and she did so in fall 2015, naming both Johnson and the state of Oregon as defendants. It was during that lawsuit that Johnson’s lawyers argued that the judge should drop Johnson as a defendant in the lawsuit and leave the state of Oregon as the sole defendant. Gallentine, Johnson and the state ultimately settled the lawsuit according to court records, and Johnson’s campaign told Willamette Week that Gallentine was paid $43,000.
Gallentine said she felt the physical effects of the crash for years. “My neck and my back were pretty messed up for years” and she also suffered “mild traumatic brain injury” according to the lawsuit. Gallentine said that reduced her ability to multitask at a high level as required for her job as an executive-level sales representative and it took her years to return to the performance level she had attained prior to the crash. “I was almost fired because my numbers went down so drastically,” said Gallentine, who now runs an equestrian center in the Portland area.
Nearly a decade later, Gallentine said she does not feel anger over the incident. She feels that Johnson “should own up to the responsibility aspect” but Gallentine said she does not want to disparage the former longtime lawmaker. Gallentine said she signed an agreement not to do so.