Widow, state settle in sinkhole death Lawsuit continues against operator of Medford quarry

November 18, 1998|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

The widow of a Westminster city employee who died in 1994 after his van plunged into a sinkhole settled her claim yesterday against the state for $50,000.

In court papers, Nancy Lee Knight asked to drop the state as a defendant in her $13 million lawsuit against the state and a nearby quarry operator. The settlement is the maximum amount she can recover under the 1984 Maryland Tort Claims Act and the much older doctrine of sovereign immunity.

The case is set for trial Nov. 30 in Carroll County Circuit Court with the remaining defendant, Redland Genstar Inc., operator of the Medford quarry.

Robert W. Knight was driving a van west toward New Windsor to get food during his shift at Westminster Wastewater Treatment Plant about 2 a.m. March 31. Ahead of him in the dark, a sinkhole 45 feet wide and 18 feet deep had opened on Route 31, a state road northeast of Medford Road.

The van plunged into the hole, and Knight died five hours later. It took rescue crews 2 1/2 hours to extricate him for a flight to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.

Alleging negligence and wrongful death, Nancy Lee Knight in 1996 sued the state -- specifically the Department of the Environment and the State Highway Administration -- and Genstar on behalf of herself and the couple's two children, including a son born that August.

A motion for dismissal filed yesterday includes Knight's signed release for all her claims against the state -- and emphasizes that state officials do not admit liability for the death by making the $50,000 payment.

"That's the limit that the Maryland State Tort Claims Act sets," said Assistant Attorney General Linda D. Strozyk. "We are effectively taken out of it. This would have cost the state of Maryland much more than $50,000 to try."

The trial is expected to take three weeks or more.

Knight referred questions to her attorney, who declined to comment.

An attorney for Genstar could not be reached yesterday, but a Genstar spokesman has said previously that the area where the sinkhole occurred is not within the company's sphere of influence.

He referred to a state law -- fought hard by mining companies but passed in 1991 -- that held companies liable for property damage caused by such activity within a specified area. The law did not presume that mining companies were liable for damage to property or wells from sinkholes but required that the state determine the cause.

Sinkholes occur in the area where water has dissolved underground limestone or marble -- creating caves.

Quarries must pump out water to mine below the water table, and the lawsuit alleges that this dewatering process weakened the rock under the road and caused the ground to collapse in front of Knight's van.

In her claims against the state, Nancy Knight said state officials were negligent in regulating the Medford quarry and in maintaining Route 31.

In arguments filed this month, Strozyk and other attorneys for the state asked the judge to remove them as defendants, saying "negligent regulation" does not exist in Maryland.

They said, "The state's sovereign immunity protects it from suit in this case," other than the limited amount allowed by the Tort Claims Act. The basic tenet of sovereign immunity is "to protect the public treasury and protect the state from interference in governmental function by requiring it to stand trial."

Despite the fact that Knight could not win more than $50,000 from the state, the plaintiffs wanted the state in the courtroom at the defense table to prevent an "empty chair" defense -- pointing the finger of blame at a defendant who isn't there, attorneys for the state said.

Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr. had set yesterday as an early deadline for Knight's response to these arguments on behalf of the state.

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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