“Besides that hiccup, and that’s terrible,” Tonn said of not finding Grace until 12 days later, “if we can call it what it is, it didn’t change the outcome, but it is embarrassing.”
Amy Morse and daughters Anastasia Grace and Rosalie Morse were pronounced dead that night. Son Braxtin Grace was taken to the hospital and died the following morning. Cody Grace was found in the ditch on April 21, but it is believed he died the night of the accident, police said.
The victims’ families have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against James Hawk, Penny Hawk, and Hawk Truck Leasing, the people and company that own the property where the drainage ditch is located. The suit also includes the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission — the six-member board that governs the Missouri Department of Transportation.
When it rains in St. Joseph, residents of the area, those driving by, and the family of the victims are reminded of the tragedy from April as the drainage ditch fills. Residents have taken to social media and asked for the ditch to be fixed, a guardrail to be added or signs put up warning of the drop-off. But who’s responsible for making those changes?
“I definitely don’t understand what it takes to fix that, but now we know it can happen and something’s got to be done,” Tonn said. “Guardrail? Fix the drain? I don’t know what it is. I don’t have the answers, but it is hard to see that it’s still like that.
“There was a time when I know that there were complaints made before the crash because I said something could happen,” Tonn said. “Well, now it has happened and in the most terrible way.”
Tina Brant was one of the people who complained to the Missouri Department of Transportation. For four years, she called and said something needed to be done to the drainage ditch. She said each time no action was taken.
“Nobody wants to claim responsibility because nobody wants to be financially responsible,” Brant said. “So the trucking company doesn’t want to touch it because then they’ll be responsible. MoDOT doesn’t want to touch it because they’ll be responsible.”
Officials with the city of St. Joseph are frustrated, too. Pear Street is a state highway, so it’s under the jurisdiction of MoDOT. But city officials still want to see something done.
“I bring up the situation with just getting some guardrail up there, just a little safety factor, and I just keep getting brushed off,” said City Councilman Kent O’Dell. “Nothing’s happened. (MoDOT) just keeps moving me aside and moving on and ignoring what I’m saying.”
MoDOT declined to comment on “pending litigation.”
Most people in the community believe there should be a guardrail and a new culvert that actually drains the ditch.
This is why Hawk Truck Leasing is being sued. The families’ lawyer said the company “recklessly and negligently failed to assure that their property met a reasonable standard of safety, specifically allowing a 6-foot-deep ditch capable of holding large volumes of water to remain on their property.”
The Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission is being sued for not maintaining the road in a “reasonably safe condition, free of defects and dangerous conditions” and for not warning the public of those “defective and dangerous conditions,” like a “drop-off excessive in height and angle.”
Both Hawk Truck Leasing and the commission deny the allegations and say that the accident, injuries, and damages “occurred due to the conduct and sole cause of Amy Morse” and the other drivers and that the accident “arose as a result of an Act of God, including without limitation any rainstorm and subsequent ponding of water.”
With a jury trial in the civil lawsuit scheduled for Nov. 14, 2022, it is unlikely residents will see changes to the ditch or the road anytime soon.
“Litigation or not, the hazards are there,” O’Dell said. “We just lost an entire family there. Hopefully, we don’t end up losing another family due to the heavy rain or what have you. But a guardrail doesn’t cost that much to put up. It’ll add in the safety feature of anybody ever sliding into that hole again.”