In 2013, according to court records, then-state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) rear-ended a driver stopped at a red light in her hometown.
The collision caused the driver of the other car lasting health problems. Johnson, now 71, who records say was not wearing a seat belt, suffered serious injury as well.
But the crash was also significant for the way that Johnson attempted to fight off the lawsuit filed by the woman in the other car. Melissa Gallentine, 42, says Johnson tried to avoid taking any responsibility for her injuries—by claiming she was performing legislative duties driving to the Capitol.
Gallentine is still “disappointed,” she says, “in someone who would not take responsibility for her actions”—and over the legal obstacles she faced trying to recover money for her injuries, which included a concussion. (The damage to her car was covered by insurance.)
“I’ve been waiting for this call,” Gallentine told WW.
Johnson’s efforts to shirk responsibility following the crash are relevant now because she has made accountability the cornerstone of her campaign to be only the second Oregon governor ever elected without being a member of either major party.
In her most recent campaign ad, Johnson sits behind the wheel of a car and grimly surveys Portland’s homeless camps. “We should expect personal responsibility,” she says.
“Nine years ago, I was responsible for causing an auto accident while I was leaving Scappoose on my way to the state Capitol. I wasn’t speeding, I wasn’t texting, I wasn’t impaired, and I wasn’t reading the damn newspaper,” Johnson says in a statement to WW. “I turned the suit over to my insurance company which used every means under the law to avoid paying anything more than justified.”
In 2015, after unsuccessful negotiations with Johnson’s insurance company, Gallentine sued Johnson in Columbia County Circuit Court, seeking $261,000 in compensation for her injuries.
In response, Johnson’s attorneys claimed she should be shielded by the concept of legislative immunity. That is, they argued she was shielded from even being served with a lawsuit during the legislative session. And Johnson’s attorneys argued that as a result, the lawsuit should be permanently dismissed because Gallentine would not be able to meet the statutory deadline for filing a lawsuit, which is two years after an incident.
“Because defendant is immune from any service of process, the court lacks personal jurisdiction over defendant,” wrote Johnson’s attorneys in an April 27, 2015, filing.
They were attempting to create a sort of Catch-22 that would have allowed Johnson and her insurance company to escape all responsibility.
That’s not all: Johnson’s attorneys also argued that if anybody owed Gallentine compensation, it was the state of Oregon because, while the accident took place just 7 miles from her home, Johnson was driving to work at the Capitol on April 22, 2013.
“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,” Johnson’s attorneys wrote.
WW requested an interview with Johnson on July 1. Her campaign declined and instead issued a statement:
“My lawyers used every tool they could to minimize what they considered an excessive claim, including laws that apply to legislators while conducting state business, which I was,” Johnson said in the statement.
“I was thinking about a bill I was on my way to introduce, and I didn’t notice that the intersection light had just changed….I immediately slammed on the brakes as hard as I could. I was taken from the scene directly to [Oregon Health & Science University] and ended up spending the next six months recovering in a wheelchair from a broken hip.”
Gallentine’s first lawsuit against Johnson in 2015 named the senator as the sole defendant.
That lawsuit was dismissed after Johnson’s attorneys argued legislative immunity.
The Oregon Constitution provides that lawmakers “shall not be subject to any civil process during the session of the Legislative Assembly, nor during the fifteen days next before the commencement thereof.”
It doesn’t say lawmakers have no responsibility for their actions.
Other lawmakers have tried to invoke legislative immunity in the past. In 2002, Rep. Greg Smith (R-Heppner) made headlines for attempting to claim legislative immunity after being pulled over for speeding. (He always denied it, and there is no legislative immunity for speeding tickets.)
Johnson may not have overstepped the law. But her effort to exempt herself may prove embarrassing for a candidate who has made accountability and transparency bywords of her gubernatorial campaign.
It’s especially noteworthy that her lawyers tried to pass the costs of the crash on to taxpayers.
As a co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Ways and Means, Sen. Johnson built her reputation on holding agencies and other elected officials to account for the way they spent tax dollars.
The examples abound.
In a 2018 hearing, she blasted the State Library’s performance: “We have spent I don’t know how many untold hours trying to figure out how to cure a hundred years of tradition unhampered by progress, and it hasn’t gotten better,” she said.
In 2019, she lambasted then-Secretary of State Dennis Richardson for pandering to voters with the idea that the public should choose audit targets. That same year she torched the Department of Forestry for failing to collect on wildfire costs for five years. “I am terribly disappointed by the agency’s inability to process its outstanding claims,” Johnson said.
But in the case of Gallentine’s lawsuit, Johnson’s attorneys made the case for the state covering the damages.
At least one Johnson supporter says he thinks the Legislature should take up the issue of ending legislative immunity.
“Lawyers do what lawyers do,” says former Sen. Jeff Barker (D-Aloha), a Johnson supporter. “The Legislature needs to take a look at that and decide whether they want to keep it or not.”
Gallentine subsequently refiled her original lawsuit, adding the state of Oregon as a defendant alongside Johnson. Johnson settled the case for $43,000 for Gallentine’s injuries, her campaign says.
“All accidents are unfortunate,” Johnson says. “This one was my fault, and I’m glad no one was as seriously hurt as I was. Everyone has insurance for a reason, lawyers do what lawyers do, but in the end, I’m glad a settlement was reached.”
The state did not pay any of the money, according to the Oregon Department of Administration Services’ risk management division.
Gallentine says the settlement provides a record that Johnson was at fault in the crash: “I was so upset about the fact that she did something wrong and she wasn’t even going to get a slap on the hand.”
The Morning Of
The accident happened around 7 am, according to press accounts at the time.
Melissa Gallentine recalls she was nearly stopped at a red light and was watching a child bouncing in the vehicle in front of her, wondering if the kid was belted in. In her rearview mirror, she caught sight of Betsy Johnson’s 2005 Chevy Blazer approaching quickly.
Johnson hit her from behind.
“The only reason that we didn’t kill the kid [in the vehicle in front of mine] is because I turned my wheel and hit the gas,” Gallentine says.
The two vehicles stayed together as they crossed two lanes and traveled the length of half a football field before coming to a stop, Gallentine says.
“Her car had hit so hard that it took the trunk all the way into the back seats of my car so that you couldn’t actually open up the back,” Gallentine says.
Gallentine remembers walking toward Johnson, who appeared to be in a great deal of pain. An ambulance arrived quickly.
“They start getting her on a stretcher, and she’s screaming in pain, and she’s also screaming at them,” Gallentine says.
Gallentine’s husband drove her to the hospital. She says she suffered lasting symptoms of what the lawsuit describes as “mild traumatic brain injury.”
Gallentine’s back was sprained in multiple places. She says it took her four years to recover fully. She now runs an equestrian barn and training center. “I didn’t go full time, I wasn’t able to do this, until 2019,” she says.
After the crash, Johnson had surgery to repair a broken pelvis. She rehabilitated at a skilled nursing facility in Portland, missing more than a month of the legislative session. Senate Democrats postponed work on legislation they needed her vote to pass. After she returned to work, she would spend six months in a wheelchair.