Utility, Builder, County Deny Fault In Man's Loss Of Limbs

October 20, 1991|By Michael James | Michael James,Staff writer

County officials, a well-known developer and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. are in a bitter standoff over who is at fault in a $20 million lawsuit filed by a Jessup man who lost both his legs and an arm in a 1989 electrical accident.

In records filed in Howard County Circuit Court, the three defendants each maintain one of the other parties is liable for the accident, which left Bryan M. Nixon with injuriesamounting to more than $1 million in medical bills.

Attorneys for the county, the electric company and Winchester Homes have filed more than 1,000 pages of legal testimony in the case, which hinges on who is responsible for an improperly buried utility pole.

Deposition hearings were under way this week as a legal battlehas begun to determine who is ultimately responsible for "BG&E pole21."

"We would like to know why this accident happened and who isresponsible," said Bertram M. Goldstein, Nixon's attorney. "It was awindy night, but it's inexcusable that a utility pole just fall out of the ground into the roadway."

The accident occurred after the utility pole was blown over onto Hall Shop Road in Clarksville. Nixon,who was driving to his postal worker's job, crashed into the pole, and the transformer wires came to rest on the car's roof.

When Nixon attempted to exit through the right rear window of the car, he grounded himself. The electric shock nearly burned off both his legs and right arm.

Nixon, 28, also suffered third-degree burns throughout his body. The police officer who arrived first on the scene found himcrawling amid live electrical wires.

"It was one of the most horrible accidents I had ever seen," said Officer Michael Sherman, who gave his deposition this week.

"He could only moan, he was in so much pain."

Doctors at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center saved Nixon'slife but had to amputate his arm and both his legs at the hip.

Today, he is undergoing extensive therapy and is learning to use prostheses, said Goldstein, who heads the Baltimore law firm of Goldstein, Hood and Associates.

Nixon, through his attorney, declined to be interviewed.

Originally, the lawsuit named only BG & E, but the electric company chargedthe county as a third party and Winchester Homesthrough a cross-complaint.

A legal motion filed by the electric company alleges that both were responsible for soil grading work around the pole that loosened its foundation and caused it to fall over.

The lawsuit states that the pole was insufficiently buried during grading work around Ashleigh Greene subdivision, a 100-lot housing project along Hall Shop Road. Winchester Homes was the developer of the project.

Approximately three weeks before the accident, the utility pole was buried an estimated 74 inches into the ground, the lawsuitstates. But on Nov. 1, grading work around the housing project left it buried in only 42 inches of dirt, the suit said.

A court document filed by BG & E's legal staff contends that county officials were negligent in supervising the grading process.

"The county's involvement in this project was much more than mere review of plans and issuance of permits. It actually participated in the work," BG & E's legal memorandum said. "When the county employees were at the site they supervised and actively directed the grading work."

Mark McCurdy of the county Office of Law disputed the utility's claim. The county, he said, is not required to review whether or not a utility pole can withstand grading operations, as BG & E alleges.

"There's no one involved that doesn't feel terrible for Mr. Nixon," McCurdy said.

"But it's a question of who is to blame, and we don't feel blame should be on us."

In rebutting comments to the lawsuit, the Baltimore law office of Semmes, Bowen and Semmes argues that Winchester Homes should not be considered liable because it followed pole relocation requirements set forth in a "Developer Agreement" with HowardCounty.

Also, the statement pointed to a police report that said Nixon was traveling faster than the road's 35-mph speed limit when he hit the pole. Police said Nixon was going a minimum of 43 mph when he crashed.

Winchester also alleged that Nixon "assumed the risk of electrocution" when he attempted to exit his car while it was covered with powerlines.

The statement said that Winchester Homes "denies that it caused or contributed to the plaintiff's injuries and believes that the plaintiff himself caused or contributed to his own injuries."

The subcontractor who handled the grading work, W. F. Lee Inc. of Germantown, is also named as a cross-defendant in the lawsuit, as well as the engineers of the project, Development Consultants Group Inc. of Olney.

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