Bridge collapse Lawsuits likely

Legal experts find possible defendants by retracing events

3 victims still hospitalized

Beltway Bridge Collapse

June 11, 1999|By Dan Fesperman and Lynn Anderson | Dan Fesperman and Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

The Beltway traffic jam that followed Tuesday afternoon's rush-hour collapse of a pedestrian bridge might be nothing compared to the pileup of lawyers and litigation that could result.

One man died and three women were seriously injured when a truck's oversized and poorly loaded cargo slammed the bridge, dropping it into the path of their vehicles.

That chain of events, legal experts say, provides a ready-made list of possible targets, should the victims or their families choose to sue. Some parties, such as the State Highway Administration, could end up as both defendant and plaintiff.

While that may strike many as an unseemly lawyerly way of cashing in on misery, in America today it's the best -- and sometimes only -- way for a victim to seek compensation for injury and loss. Especially when the parties at fault are generally even quicker to hire attorneys.

"People talk about lawyers `swarming over a scene,' " said Charles B. Shafer, who teaches tort law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. "But there were people hurt here, and none of the potential defendants is going to swarm over and help them out.

"The only way those people are going to obtain anything is if they are represented by lawyers. ... These `vultures' who are circling, that's the only institution our society has to protect these plaintiffs."

So far, none of the victims or family members has filed suit. In most, perhaps all, cases they have been too preoccupied with the emotional and physical ordeal of the aftermath to hire a lawyer.

That is the case with the family of Robert Norman Taylor, 54, who was killed in the accident.

"I am just trying to get through this grieving period," his brother Larry Taylor, 46, of Northwest Baltimore said yesterday. He couldn't say whether he would ever file suit.

"Right now I am really confused," he said. "My only wish is that my brother were still here."

The date of his only surviving sibling's funeral is still up in the air, Taylor said. "It could be sometime next week, between Wednesday and Friday."

The three injured women remained hospitalized yesterday at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Regina Lee Brehon, who lived with Taylor, was reported in serious but stable condition, Elizabeth Freeman was in critical but stable condition, and Henri Patrice McQueen Williams was in fair condition.

Maryland offers some protection against being hounded by "ambulance chaser" attorneys. State law bars attorneys from contacting potential clients by using "coercion, duress or harassment," and from contacting someone unable to exercise "reasonable judgment in hiring a lawyer."

But lawsuits will almost inevitably come, lawyers and state officials say, and it's possible to compile a rough list of the potential parties by retracing Tuesday afternoon's progression of fate and misfortune.

The sequence began when the driver of the truck, Paul McIntosh, of Brussels, Ontario, picked up a Caterpillar excavator in Locust Point.

McIntosh has already told investigators he loaded the backhoe himself. They say he did a poor job, winding up with cargo that exceeded its permitted height by more than three feet and its permitted width by 10 inches.

That left the load a foot higher in the air than the Maiden Choice footbridge that crossed the Beltway southwest of Baltimore. The wrecked footbridge was owned, and recently inspected by, the State Highway Administration.

While McIntosh's admissions could make him the obvious first target, lawyers said, his employer, the Canadian company TTK Transport and Services, might also wind up in the sights of plaintiff lawyers. So might the company that provided the backhoe, even though McIntosh apparently did his own loading, and the State Highway Administration, even though the inspection showed the footbridge was structurally sound.

"If you're the plaintiff, you're going to sue all those parties," Shafer said, speaking hypothetically. "It would be malpractice not to, because the plaintiff doesn't know yet what all the parties did and one way to start finding out is to sue everyone reasonably involved."

State officials are used to plaintiff's attorneys casting such wide nets, said Ed Harris, an assistant attorney general who handles legal affairs for the highway administration.

"We have instances where intoxicated people blame an accident on the curve in the road," he said. "We deal with accident cases quite a bit."

But if, for example, the state's inspection of the bridge was proven faulty, the lawsuit net might widen.

"Potential claims could range from anyone who has inspected the bridge to state designers," said Baltimore attorney Lawrence Greenberg. Contractors who worked on the bridge could be included, he said.

State officials, on the other hand, could take legal action against the truck driver, McIntosh, and his employer's insurers if state police file charges against him, said David Buck, a highway administration spokesman.

"If the driver is charged, we would work to recoup our costs as we would in any trucking or traffic accident," Buck said.

McIntosh's company, TTK, has hired local attorney Brian Goodman to protect its interests in the case.

Goodman wouldn't comment yesterday, except to say: "Mr. McIntosh fully cooperated with the authorities at the scene. He spoke with the police, the National Transportation Safety Board and the State Highway Administration at length, and he promptly gave a blood alcohol test."

Investigators say neither drugs nor alcohol was a factor in the case.

Pub Date: 6/11/99

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