“I noticed this truck in the parking lot” by the restroom building, Wendkos said, recalling what he saw that sunny afternoon in 2017. “The wheels started spinning and the tires were smoking.”
What happened next changed his life, seriously injuring Wendkos and his son, leading to a $3.5 million legal settlement paid by the city this year and leaving the family with some lingering questions.
The Parks Department truck suddenly surged up a wheelchair ramp and into the park, Wendkos, pinning his right arm against the wall of the restroom building and sending his son, Jonah, flying off his shoulders. The truck’s driver later said the collision was a freak accident.
“I didn’t really have time to react,” Wendkos said. “The truck hit me going about 20 or 25 miles an hour… I pulled my arm out from between the truck and the wall. I had no idea where Jonah was.”
Wendkos, now 50, found Jonah lying on the pavement in a daze. His daughter, Amelia, had been walking behind, Wendkos said. She wasn’t hit.
As other parkgoers approached, Wendkos scooped up his children, collapsed under a tree and called 911, he said. He was taken to Highline Medical Center with a broken arm and two broken vertebrae, and Jonah was taken to Harborview Medical Center with a fractured skull. Five years later, Wendkos still suffers from back pain and worries about Jonah, who also has health challenges.
The family’s recent settlement, based on a lawsuit filed against the city in 2020, is the largest legal payout by Seattle so far this year, along with $3.5 million paid to the family of Charleena Lyles, who was killed by police in 2017, the City Attorney’s Office said. Both settlements were agreed to last year and paid this year after receiving court approval.
The City Attorney’s Office shared only this statement: “The City of Seattle is pleased to have settled this case. In settling the case, the City did not admit any liability.”
The truck driver, Charles Rushing Jr., was a Parks maintenance employee. He apparently no longer works for the city.
Rushing told his supervisor at the time that the incident was an accident.
“I stopped at the curb, briefly took a sip of my tea, then started coughing and the next thing I knew I went into the building,” Rushing wrote in a Parks “collision report,” according to a deposition of the Parks supervisor.
According to a police report, as quoted in the deposition, Rushing said his muscles “suddenly stiffened” when he coughed, causing him to “put his right foot down on the gas pedal instead of the brake pedal.” Rushing said he “blacked out briefly” as he hit the building.
Reached via phone by The Seattle Times, Rushing said he wasn’t drinking tea.
“I started coughing right when I was going up the curb and I had a temporary loss of reaction,” he said.
Rushing now struggles with kidney failure and undergoes dialysis, he said, suggesting his health may have had something to do with the accident.
“I didn’t even know I was sick at that time,” he said.
Rushing said he couldn’t immediately comment further.
Rushing didn’t undergo drug and alcohol testing after the incident because his supervisor, Carol Baker, didn’t think he seemed impaired at the scene, she said in her deposition. For incidents involving employees with commercial driver licenses, Parks usually orders drug and alcohol testing, but Rushing didn’t have a commercial license, Baker said. Police at the scene wrongly told Baker that no one had been seriously injured, she said.
Two months earlier, Rushing had scratched the side of a truck by bumping it into a barbecue unit at Roxhill Park, according to Baker’s deposition. He was told to be more careful but received no training or testing, she said.
In a supervisor’s report for the incident involving the Wendkos family, Baker wrote that policies and procedures had not been followed. Rushing hadn’t shifted his truck into park while sipping his tea, she said in her deposition. She recommended job coaching, a driving skills evaluation and possible discipline. A higher supervisor” that ordered a “termination Rushing from his driving position, according to Baker’s deposition.
Lawyers for the Wendkos family weren’t able to depose Rushing before the settlement, according to one of the lawyers, Ian De Verna, who said: “We wish we could have done more to find out” what happened and how such incidents could be prevented.
Parks declined to answer questions from The Times about the incident, including what happened to Rushing and whether the department changed any policies afterward, and declined an interview request.
Wendkos missed about two months of work, and even now his back hurts “every day” despite multiple medical procedures, he said.
“He hasn’t been able to walk around with the kids on his shoulders since then,” said his wife, Sarah Wendkos.
Eli Wendkos has also dealt with post-traumatic stress, De Verna added.
When Sarah Wendkos arrived at the scene, Jonah was “crying in a way I’d never heard him cry before” and started vomiting, she said. He spent the night at Harborview and had trouble sleeping in the months afterward.
“It was awful,” Sarah Wendkos said.
The lawsuit involved testing to assess the extent that Jonah’s brain was injured, De Verna said. His persistent challenges include issues related to vision, memory and balance, the lawyer said.
Jonah is “doing really well,” considering what happened, and his parents are “cautiously optimism that he’ll pull through everything,” Sarah Wendkos said. He’s learning to read and write, though his parents are trying to keep him out of activities where he could hurt his head again, she said. The settlement will help cover needs related to Jonah’s education, potentially including more medical evaluations, tutoring and therapy, De Verna said.
Since the incident, the family has moved to North Carolina, with Eli Wendkos taking a job there. Sarah Wendkos said it was a “big relief” to settle the case.
“We just kind of have to live with the fact that we’re not going to get answers” about everything that happened, Eli Wendkos said.