TAMPA — The widow of a Tampa police officer killed in a wrong-way crash on Interstate 275 last year has filed suit against the Florida Department of Transportation and one of its contractors, claiming they bear responsibility for her husband’s death because a system meant to detect wrong-way drivers failed.
The transportation department and its contractor, TransCore, were negligent by failing to ensure that the system worked properly on March 9, 2021, according to the complaint filed Tuesday in Hillsborough County circuit court on behalf of Master Patrol Officer Jesse Madsen’s widow, Danyelle. She is seeking a jury trial and unspecified damages for herself and the couple’s three children, who are 12, 14 and 18.
“The failure of the (system) resulted in no warnings or deterrents being given to the wrong-way driver, no warnings given to other motorists and no warnings given to alert law enforcement so they could attempt to take immediate action to prevent the deadly results of the (system’s) failures,” the complaint states.
The result is the loss of a good cop and a beloved husband and father, said Steve Yerrid, a Tampa attorney representing Danyelle Madsen, during a news conference on Tuesday at his Tampa office. A tearful Madsen sat beside him, but did not speak.
“This wasn’t an accident,” Yerrid said. “They created a foreseeable zone of risk.”
The transportation department does not comment on pending litigation, spokesperson Kris Carson said.
Representatives for TransCore had not responded by Tuesday afternoon to two emails seeking comment.
Madsen, 45, was heading north on Interstate 275 in his marked patrol SUV early that morning. Joshua Daniel Montague, 25, got onto the interstate and headed in the wrong direction, police said. They crashed near East Hillsborough Avenue. Both men died on impact.
Police said Montague entered the interstate at the Busch Boulevard exit ramp and that it appears Madsen intentionally turned into the path of Montague’s car to stop him.
At the time, state transportation officials said they were investigating whether the detection system there worked properly.
Masden’s act of heroism wouldn’t have been necessary had the wrong-way detection system worked, his widow’s lawsuit claims.
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When the sensors detect a wrong-way driver, they trigger an alarm at the Transportation Department’s Traffic Management Center, monitored 24 hours a day by Florida Highway Patrol staff. Cameras installed alongside the sensors help public safety officials track a driver’s location in real time until law enforcement can intervene. The sensors also set off flashing lights along the ramp and send a warning message to other drivers on overhead message boards along the interstates.
According to the lawsuit, the system experienced numerous issues in the days leading up to the crash, causing the system to repeatedly malfunction. TransCore has been under contract with the state since 2018 and is responsible for the proper maintenance of Florida’s Intelligent Transportation Systems, which include the wrong-way detection system at Busch, the lawsuit states.
From January 2020 to February 2021, there were five incidents at Busch Boulevard involving wrong-way drivers who entered I-275, according to the complaint. In each of those prior instances, the system worked properly, warning drivers they were going the wrong way and allowing motorists to correct their route.
Madsen was a 16-year veteran of the department who’d served three tours in Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine and received eight life-saving awards during his time as a cop. He posthumously received the Police Purple Shield and Police Medal of Honor as well as his final life-saving award. His family received the department’s Gold Cross and his badge number, 507, was retired.
Also attending Tuesday’s news conference was Yarrellys Ruiz, who was driving north on the interstate that night when she saw Madsen’s patrol SUV pass her, then the collision. It’s an image that still haunts her, she said.
“He did what he did because that was something that he did for so many years, helping people,” Ruiz said. “That was his duty and he did it, saving my life.”