Contractor fined $710 in collapse of B-W overpass

August 27, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

The contractor involved in the bridge collapse over the Baltimore-Washington Parkway near Laurel two years ago has been fined $710 by a state hearing examiner, who threw out the state job safety agency's assessment of over $900,000 for multiple violations.

It was by far the largest fine ever sought by the Maryland Occupational Safety and Health office.

The Aug. 31, 1989, accident occurred as concrete was poured on the top deck of Route 198. Fourteen people were hurt, including one woman with permanent brain damage whose family has already settled its lawsuit against the contractors for $5.3 million.

Hearing examiner Judith Lewis-Frazee found that J. P. Smith Co. Inc. of Edgewater had violated a single safety rule by failing to inspect the support structure immediately before pouring concrete.

She dismissed 129 other MOSH citations against the contractor, concluding that most of them were the result of a supply firm delivering support jacks weaker than specified.

Federal Highway Administration inspectors had approved the plans and every change in design for the scaffolding structure, or falsework, holding the new concrete, she noted. J. P. Smith made nearly all the inspections required, the hearing examiner said.

The decision was released yesterday by MOSH, which had no comment on the ruling. Ms. Lewis-Frazee held the hearing in June 1990.

Henry Koellein Jr., the state labor commissioner, has 15 days to decide whether to review the decision or let it stand. He had not formally decided yesterday.

The family of Kimberly Sue Andersen, a motorist who was seriously injured in the early morning collapse of the Route 198 structure, expressed disappointment with the decision. "It's criminal that these people can get away with this," said Janice Bulmer, the woman's mother. "They should be punished for what happened."

Ms. Andersen, formerly of Elkridge, and her two small children now live with Mrs. Bulmer in Hope Mills, N.C.

"We lost our daughter and I lost my husband, and these people who built the bridge -- their lives go on," Mrs. Bulmer said. She blamed the death of her husband a year ago on the stress of his daily commuting to their daughter's rehabilitation center near Fayetteville, N.C.

A. Neal Barkus, a lawyer for J. P. Smith Co., said he felt the company was vindicated by the decision. He said the contractor had been "the target of vigorous prosecution" by MOSH because of publicity surrounding the accident, which injured 10 workers and 4 motorists.

Ms. Lewis-Frazee noted that MOSH tried to raise the level of fines by using an "egregious violation" definition that had not been formally adopted by the agency. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration had a policy regarding egregious violations, which raised potential fines tenfold.

The hearing examiner faulted John P. Smith, the company owner, for using "poor judgment" in accepting the supplier's word that the screw jacks were of sufficient strength for the job. But she said that he "did not act with any malevolent, intentional or careless disregard for MOSH regulations."

The accident suggests an industrywide need for clear labeling of capacities on all falsework equipment, Ms. Lewis-Frazee said.

Screw jacks rated to hold 10,000 pounds each were used instead of the 25,000-pound capacity specified in the plans approved by federal engineers. The Smith firm said these jacks were obtained from Able Equipment Co. of Glen Allen, Va., which verified their suitability.

About 400 tons of steel, concrete and wood forms fell onto the southbound lanes of the parkway about 7 a.m. during the pour.

The accident prompted congressional criticism of Federal Highway Administration inspectors' role in supervising highway construction projects and the degree of responsibility borne by contractors receiving their approval.

"It is both inappropriate and improper to assess blame upon this employer for faults existing within the FHWA approval process," Ms. Lewis-Frazee wrote, referring to a MOSH charge that the contractor did not have proper approval of design revisions.

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