Family of truck crash victim sues driver, owner

June 03, 1993|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Staff Writer

The family of a Columbia woman killed April 29 when her car was struck by a dump truck is seeking $50 million from the truck's driver and owner.

A lawsuit, filed on behalf of Suzanne Denise Bice, claims the driver and his wife, the truck's owner, were negligent for operating the vehicle with faulty brakes.

The driver also was negligent for operating the truck with a fraudulent driver's license, and his wife was negligent for allowing him to drive without a proper license, the suit says.

Gary Bernstein and his wife Martine Metz Bernstein, both of Finksburg, are named as defendants in the suit filed in Howard Circuit Court May 25. They declined to comment.

"He was basically driving a loaded gun," said Joel Abramson, a Columbia attorney for Mrs. Bice's family. "In this case, the gun went off. Obviously, something has to be done about that."

Mr. Bernstein, 37, was charged with 17 criminal counts, including manslaughter and making false statements to police. His case is scheduled for trial in Howard District Court on Aug. 17.

"Certainly, Mr. Bernstein feels horribly about the tragedy that occurred," said Thomas Morrow, a Towson attorney handling Mr. Bernstein's criminal case. "Beyond that, what can you say?"

In the accident, Mr. Bernstein was traveling east on Route 175 when he ran a red light at Thunder Hill Road, a police report filed in court says. His truck collided with three cars, including Mrs. Bice's Subaru.

Witnesses told police the driver of the truck, carrying a full load of stone and weighing 65,320 pounds, didn't appear to attempt to stop for the traffic light, the report says.

The drivers of the other cars were not seriously injured. Mr. Bernstein was treated at Howard County General Hospital and then released.

Mrs. Bice, 43, was pronounced dead at the scene. Her 12-year-old son, Phillip, a passenger in the car, remains in a coma at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore, although his condition is improving, Mr. Abramson said. "They've got their fingers crossed," the attorney said.

In the suit, the Bice family claims that Mr. Bernstein and his wife failed to meet their responsibility of having the dump truck's brakes inspected every 30 days, as required by state and federal law. The police report says the brakes on the truck were last inspected on Feb. 18 -- more than two months before the crash.

"The defendants acted with a wanton disregard for the safety of [the Bices] and the safety of others and breached the duties owed to them," the suit says.

The suit also contends that Mrs. Bernstein knew or should have known that her husband was an "unsafe, unfit and incompetent driver" who fraudulently obtained a duplicate driver's license after his primary license was revoked.

Mr. Bernstein told police his name was David Bernstein at the accident scene. But officers later learned that Mr. Bernstein used a birth certificate to obtain a driver's license after his license was revoked, the police report says.

The state Motor Vehicles Administration has a 24-page record on Mr. Bernstein, who has been charged with drunken driving three times since 1980, police said.

MVA records show Mr. Bernstein was charged with alcohol violations in 1980 and 1982. His license was suspended between 1982 and 1987, when he got a new license that had an alcohol restriction.

Mr. Bernstein was charged with driving while intoxicated, negligent driving and violating conditions of his restricted license in Carroll County in June 1988.

As part of a plea agreement reached in February 1989, Mr. Bernstein was given three years of probation for driving under the influence -- a less serious charge than DWI -- in Carroll Circuit Court. Prosecutors dropped the other charges as part of the agreement.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bernstein's driver's license was suspended in 1989, according to the MVA.

Mr. Bernstein obtained a Class C license in 1991 after several attempts, the MVA said. He then gave a fraudulent birth certificate to obtain a commercial license, which he got in February.

His documentation appeared authentic and didn't catch the attention of clerks trained to catch fraudulent documents, the MVA said.

The suit was filed by Mrs. Bice's husband, Stephen Bice; their sons, Phillip Bice and Aaron Bice; and the victim's mother, Clara Froio of Los Angeles.

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