Accord found without lawsuits

Settlement in bridge collapse achieved through mediation

July 23, 2000|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

They gathered to put price tags on the broken bones, the emotional trauma and a life that was lost. It was nearly a year to the day after a truck had knocked down a Baltimore Beltway overpass during evening rush hour, and the injured and the bereaved were demanding compensation.

But they were not in a courthouse. They were in a downtown hotel, ignoring the swimming-pool horseplay just outside the window and watching a retired appeals court judge scurry from room to room.

And, in the end, forging a $2.6 million settlement that's being hailed as a model for a new era in justice.

"To have this significant a settlement without a lawsuit at all, that's really wonderful," said Rachel A. Wohl, executive director of the Maryland Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission, a 2-year-old panel that encourages mediation as a way to help break logjams in the state's courts. "That's really the ideal."

Ideal, she said, because it pre-empted a lengthy legal battle that could have tied up courtrooms and brought more trauma to the victims. Instead, the case was resolved after a single day of mediated negotiations.

That session, held June 3 at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, was, to some, draining. It was, at times, emotional.

One participant had come to know her father only about three years earlier, and now had to hear of the unusual accident that caused his death. Others, still slowed by their injuries, knew that hundreds of thousands of dollars might be at stake.

Still, they knew the long day at the hotel was probably their best option.

"If we would have went to trial, I think it probably would have lasted a while, and it probably wouldn't have been a pretty thing," said Henri Patrice Williams, who is set to undergo another round of physical therapy for the leg injuries she suffered in the accident on June 8, 1999. "All the other people who were injured, they said the same thing: They didn't want to relive this any more than they had to."

J. Allan Cohen, a lawyer in the case, described mediation as the wave of the future.

`A good day'

"We kept the case out of the courts, saved all kinds of money for all kinds of people, and the case is resolved," he said. "It was a good day."

Cohen, along with his son and law associate, Adam Sean Cohen, clearly recalls the evening they heard about the accident. Like many in greater Baltimore, he said, they could hardly believe the initial reports of a bridge toppling onto a busy highway.

Of all the vehicles on the highway at the time, three happened to crash into the debris. Robert N. Taylor, a 54-year-old port of Baltimore worker, was dead, and three women were seriously injured. An investigation showed that a backhoe being transported on a tractor-trailer knocked the bridge onto the Beltway.

"I remember seeing [the truck] and saying, `I either need to pass him or stay away from him,'" recalled Williams, 29, whose Toyota Corolla crashed into the fallen bridge. She softly added, "But that didn't really work."

Legal help

Within days, the phone rang at the Cohens' law office. A 33-year-old Northwest Baltimore woman named Gwendolyn Taylor was calling.

"She said, `I need an attorney because my father has been killed. ... You know the bridge that fell?'" said Adam Cohen, 29, who has been practicing law for four years. "I was blown away."

Taylor had called the Cohens because they had done legal work for one of her relatives. Now they were dispatching investigators to collect information for a potential "cause of action."

Soon all the victims had lawyers - and T.T.K. Transport Inc., the Canadian trucking company involved in the crash, had its own legal team looking into the accident.

Brian S. Goodman, a Baltimore lawyer representing the trucking company, said that although his client raised some "technical" defenses, "it was pretty clear that we bore some responsibility for this incident." Early last winter, Goodman suggested that the two sides hire a mediator to help reach a settlement.

Initial suspicions

Not all of the victims' lawyers immediately embraced the idea.

"I was very suspicious of the process in this particular case, given the magnitude of the damages and the number of attorneys and parties involved," said Ronald S. Landsman, a lawyer representing one of Robert Taylor's survivors.

Patrick J. O'Guinn, who represented Williams, said, "It's the typical lawyer mindset that says, `If I file a lawsuit it's going to get better.' But that's not the case."

For that matter, filing suit can sometimes poison the negotiating atmosphere, said Roger C. Wolf, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and chairman of the state bar association's committee on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

"What this case shows is that if parties are well-intentioned ... you don't need a lawsuit to share information and sit down at the table and work out a resolution," he said.

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