Man sues over accident that killed his 3 children

July 12, 1994|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,Sun Staff Writer

Alleging that the company car he was driving during a fatal June 1991 accident had design defects, a Silver Run man filed suit last week seeking $84 million in damages from Ford Motor Co., his former employer and two other corporations in Carroll County Circuit Court.

The seven-count suit by Russell Michael Corbett presents a version of the accident that differs greatly from one offered by Betty Lou Corbett, from whom he has since been divorced. In a Circuit Court suit filed in March 1993, Ms. Corbett said Mr. Corbett's "negligent, reckless and careless" driving and maintenance of the car caused the accident, which seriously injured the couple and killed their three children.

Mr. and Mrs. Corbett, the children and a 15-year-old baby sitter were on their way to a birthday party when their Ford Taurus station wagon crossed the center line of Route 97 near Silver Run and struck a Jeep Cherokee head-on.

With Mr. Corbett's suit, all six of the accident's survivors are now pursuing legal action. But no trial date has been set in any of the suits.

"This case has become a game, a game I don't like to play," said lawyer R. Richard Donadio, adding that he is pursuing a settlement for Oren Goldberg, a Baltimore man who was a passenger in the Jeep.

"It takes a long time for these cases, and during that time, there's an emotional and physical cost to these human beings," he said.

In addition to the Corbetts, who both were hospitalized and underwent months of rehabilitation, the baby sitter and the driver and two passengers in the Jeep have suffered what their lawyers call permanent injuries.

Dr. Peter Levine, who was driving the Jeep, is still unable to return to his job as a chiropractor in Reisterstown, said his Towson attorney, Steven D. Wyman. Erika Balogh, a medical student who was riding with Dr. Levine, will have back problems for the rest of her life, Mr. Wyman said.

Police believe, and Mr. Corbett's suit suggests, that the Corbett children might have been killed when heavy objects in the back of the station wagon -- including a 60-pound dental light fixture -- either penetrated the seat cushion or fell on them during the crash.

Mr. Corbett's suit lists the estates of the children -- Jacqueline Michelle, 5; Russell Michael Jr., 3; and Loren Cassidy, 18 months -- as plaintiffs. Any money awarded to the children's estates would likely be split between Mr. and Ms. Corbett, attorneys for both said.

While Mr. Corbett was filing his action last week, his ex-wife amended her suit to include Ford as a defendant. Stephen Winegrad, an attorney for Ms. Corbett, said last night that the car company might be liable for allegedly failing to provide safety measures to prevent equipment in the rear of the station wagon from harming the children during the crash.

A state police report from September 1991 makes no mention of alleged design defects in the Taurus. Instead, it suggests that poor upkeep of the station wagon caused the crash.

"Worn tires on a wet road surface was the primary reason for the occurrence of this accident," the report said. "Also, the nonuse or improper use of occupant safety devices and an unsecured load contributed and in some incidences increased the severity of the injuries."

Speaking by phone from Detroit, Ford staff attorney John Spelich suggested that Mr. Corbett's suit was motivated more by his legal predicament than by any problem with the Taurus. Mr. Spelich said that neither the Silver Run man nor his attorney had contacted Ford to discuss the accident or design defects before filing suit Thursday.

"It's worth noting that this is the first we've heard of this accident," Mr. Spelich said. "This also was filed on the eve of the statute of limitations, so it seems they weren't too interested in this until the clock was about to run out."

In his suit, Mr. Corbett also charges that his employer, the now-bankrupt HealthCo. International of Owings Mills, erred in providing him with a defective vehicle.

But Mark T. Mixter, an attorney for HealthCo, said he did not believe a claim against the company, a distributor of dental office equipment, could stand because of provisions in state law preventing employees from filing anything other than a workers' compensation suit.

The suit also names two corporations responsible for leasing the vehicle to HealthCo -- PHH Fleet America and D. L. Peterson Trust, both of Hunt Valley -- as co-defendants. Efforts to reach officials at both companies were unsuccessful.

The suit does not detail the alleged defects, citing items from the sub-frame to the tires to the rear seat belts as items that "may have been defective in design."

Asked whether he had specific evidence of flaws, William P. Douglas, Mr. Corbett's Carlisle, Pa.-based lawyer, refused to comment.

At the same time, the lawyer noted that Ford Taurus models were recalled as recently as last year for possible sub-frame defects. That recall did not apply to cars sold in Maryland, according to the Highway and Vehicle Safety Report, a transportation journal.

In her suit against her ex-husband, Ms. Corbett had sought to prove recklessness on Mr. Corbett's part by citing his driving record, which included several speeding and other violations. At the time of the accident, Mr. Corbett's license was suspended for his failure to appear in District Court on a traffic citation.

But the county reinstated his license 11 days after the crash, according to court records.

During summer and fall in 1991, neighbors and civic groups organized dances and raffles to raise $20,000 for the Corbetts' medical bills and the children's funeral expenses.

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