Settlement reached in sinkhole death Worker's van plunged into Route 31 opening

December 01, 1998|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Redland Genstar Inc. has settled a multimillion-dollar lawsuit by the widow of a Westminster city employee killed in 1994 after his van plunged into a sinkhole on the road to New Windsor.

Jury selection was to begin yesterday for an estimated three-week trial, but instead the attorneys met privately with Carroll County Circuit Judge Raymond E. Beck Sr.

Robert W. Knight was driving to New Windsor about 2 a.m. March 31, 1994, to get food during his shift at Westminster Wastewater Treatment Plant. A sinkhole 45 feet wide and 18 feet deep had opened on Route 31, a state road northeast of Medford Road.

Emergency crews worked more than two hours to free him from the van, and Knight was flown to Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, where he died five hours after the accident.

Nancy Lee Knight filed a $13 million lawsuit in 1996 against Genstar, operator of the nearby Medford quarry, and the state of Maryland, alleging negligence and wrongful death.

The attorneys for Knight and Genstar said they could not discuss the amount involved in the settlement because it is sealed. They said their clients are satisfied.

"I think everybody is satisfied," said James M. Gabler, representing Mrs. Knight. "We worked it out and settled over the weekend."

"We believe very firmly that the quarry operator had nothing to do with the creation of that sinkhole," said Genstar attorney Thomas F. McDonough. "And you can underline absolutely.

"But the fact is, litigation is by nature expensive and uncertain -- and there's naturally a lot of sympathy for the widow," he said. McDonough said he could not discuss the amount of the monetary award but emphasized that Genstar did not admit liability.

Knight settled her claim against the state of Maryland Nov. 17 for $50,000, and the state was dismissed as a defendant. The amount was the maximum that could be recovered under the 1984 Maryland Tort Claims Act and the much older doctrine of sovereign immunity, according to court papers and the assistant attorney general handling the case.

State officials also did not admit liability.

In her claims against the state, Knight had said state officials in the Department of the Environment and the State Highway Administration were negligent in regulating the Medford quarry and in maintaining Route 31.

Sinkholes occur naturally in some limestone and marble formations, where water dissolves the rock and creates cavities that then collapse.

Because quarries dig below the water table and must pump out water, the lawsuit alleged that this process had weakened the rock under the road and caused the ground to collapse in front of Knight's van.

The Knight lawsuit had been looked at as a possible test of the "sphere of influence" of quarry operations. A state law passed in 1991 holds mining companies liable for property damage caused by such activity within a specific area but does not presume that they are at fault.

Genstar had previously denied that the area where the sinkhole occurred is within its sphere of influence.

Pub Date: 12/01/98

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