Contractor fined $710 in BW Parkway bridge collapse MOSH sought $1 million in accident that hurt 14

judge says only 1 violation proved.

August 26, 1991|By Jay Merwin | Jay Merwin,Evening Sun Staff

The contractor involved in the 1989 bridge collapse over the Baltimore-Washington Parkway that injured 14 people, including one woman very seriously, has to pay $710 in fines.

The Maryland Occupational Health and Safety Administration had sought fines of nearly $1 million. It had charged that the contractor, J.P. Smith Co. of Edgewater, had used the wrong-size screw jacks atop the support scaffolding that shored up the bridge during the reconstruction project. It also faulted the company for shoring up the bridge with a support structure different from the original design.

But in a decision signed last Wednesday, Judith Lewis-Frazee, a state administrative law judge, found that only one safety violation had been proven against the company -- its failure to inspect the support scaffolding during the pouring of concrete, which broke the bridge. The fine for that violation is $710.

The mother of Kimberly Sue Anderson, who suffered permanent brain damage and several other injuries when the bridge steel and concrete fell on her car, denounced the decision as "not fair."

"These people should be punished," the woman's mother, Janice Bulmer, said. "I think it's criminal that these people can get away with this."

Anderson was the person most seriously injured in the accident, which occurred Aug. 31, 1989.

In her written decision, Lewis-Frazee found that J.P. Smith had made nearly all the required inspections in building a suitable support structure, including screw jacks, for the bridge reconstruction. She said that John P. Smith, the company owner, may have exercised "poor judgment" in relying on the word of the supplier that the screw jacks were suitable for the load, but that Smith had not violated safety standards.

Smith designed and ordered an entire support structure according to specifications, she said, although some of the screw jacks he received from a supplier turned out to be wrong for the weight of the job.

Lewis-Frazee also said the company had shown that every change in the design of the support scaffolding, known as "falsework," had been approved by the Federal Highway Administration.

A. Neal Barkus, J.P. Smith's lawyer, said he was "delighted" with the decision and felt vindicated from an attempt by MOSH to single out his client in a highly publicized disaster.

"We felt MOSH felt it had to do something vigorously," Barkus said, "and my client was the target."

Susan Cherry, who represented MOSH, could not be reached for comment.

The Md. 198 bridge over the Baltimore-Washington Parkway near Laurel collapsed just as the morning rush hour began. Workers had poured concrete onto the upper level. The crash injured nine construction workers and five motorists.

Barkus acknowledged that, although the administrative law decision had absolved the company of all but one safety violation, "obviously somebody has to be at fault. This kind of thing doesn't happen without somebody being negligent."

But he said the issue of fault was resolved in June with the settlement of a lawsuit the woman filed.

Anderson, 32, formerly of Elkridge and now living with her mother in Hope Mills, N.C., won a $5.3 million settlement in cash and annuity payments.

Insurance policies for J.P. Smith and three other contractors involved in the bridge project -- Associated Marjon Co., of Ashland, Va.; Able Equipment Co. Inc., of Glen Allen, Va.; and Highlights Corp., of Towson -- all share in paying the settlement.

In her decision, Lewis-Frazee also noted that Smith had acted upon reports from employees at the site who had found the screw jacks to be loose-fitting.

Smith twice called Able Equipment and was told that the screw jacks he received from them were rated to bear the weight required for the project. Although the screw jacks may have appeared wrong to workers at the site, testimony in the hearing described how appearance didn't necessarily indicate a wrong part. Experts testified that the metallurgy of screw jacks, not their diameter, is what determines their strength.

"Smith was given false or incorrect information which resulted in his using upper screw jacks whose rating did not meet the specifications," Lewis-Frazee said, and therefore, Smith's inspections before building the scaffolding achieved "an imperfect result."

But, she said, "There was no evidence that Smith abdicated the normal standard of care utilized in the construction industry when dealing with falsework."

Nor could any of Smith's actions be construed as "willful," as MOSH had charged in pursuing fines of $910,220.

"By accepting verbal confirmation [about the screw jacks] from a supplier with whom he was personally unfamiliar, Smith used poor judgment," Lewis-Frazee wrote. "Smith, however, did not act with any malevolent, intentional or careless disregard for MOSH regulations."

The problem with determining the strength rating of the screw jacks "seems indicative of a larger problem within the bridge construction industry," she said, and went on to propose a requirement that all falsework parts be permanently labeled with their rated capacity.

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