Crash victims' parents file suits

Truck driver, police among those sued over collision at nonworking light

December 06, 2006|By Tyrone Richardson | Tyrone Richardson,Sun reporter

The tractor-trailer driver in the crash that killed two teenagers at a nonworking Howard County traffic light is not only fighting the two traffic citations from the accident.

Gary L. Dicks, 24, of Stephen City, Va., was served notices of wrongful death and negligence lawsuits recently for his actions on the night of Jan. 6.

The parents of Scott E. Caplan, 19, of Columbia, and Theresa E. Howard, 18, of Eldersburg, separately have filed $5 million wrongful death lawsuits against Dicks. They have also sued the Virginia-based trucking company he worked for, the driver of the vehicle Caplan and Howard were riding in, the State of Maryland, Maryland State Police, and a former Howard County police officer who left the nonworking traffic signal before putting up a warning device, according to court papers filed last month.

"The Caplans very much believe this was a completely preventable and tragic incident that took the lives of two innocent young people," said Douglas J. Furlong, attorney for the Caplan family. "If people had been acting responsibly that night, all cited as defendants, their child would still be alive."

About 10:30 p.m. Jan. 6, Caplan and Howard were passengers in a vehicle headed west on Route 175 that was struck at an intersection by a tractor-trailer that was on the exit ramp off southbound Interstate 95, according to police. The traffic light at the intersection was not working because of a power outage.

Meghan E. St. Martin, 18, of Marriottsville, who was driving the 1996 Volvo 850 that Caplan and Howard were riding in, was injured but survived the accident. She also is taking legal action.

St. Martin has filed a $300,000 negligence lawsuit against Dicks, the trucking company, the State of Maryland, Howard County and the former Howard County police officer.

"The basis of the suit is Ms. St. Martin said the [truck] driver was negligent and the people he worked for were also responsible," said Michael Patrick Smith, St. Martin's attorney.

In response to the suits against St. Martin, Smith said: "Ms. St. Martin wasn't negligent and we will defend the case. It's unfortunate that the parents of people who were her friends are now blaming her when it was the truck who was on the unfavored roadway."

David P. Durbin, an attorney for Dicks and the trucking company, declined to comment on the civil lawsuits, saying it was too early and "it's just starting out."

Durbin said his clients have not filed lawsuits, but they could.

"If we are found liable then the county and state may be liable for the law enforcement folks on the scene not taking action," Durbin said.

Dicks is fighting in Howard County District Court the only charges brought against him by prosecutors - negligent driving and failure to stop at a through highway entrance and yield right of way. The court case started last week and is scheduled to continue Feb. 1.

Howard County State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone has said evidence from Dicks' actions did not prove reason to prosecute on more serious charges such as vehicular manslaughter.

During Dicks' trial last week, detectives investigating the crash released the most detailed account so far in the incident, which ultimately led to questions on traffic light safety during power outages.

The statement of facts read by prosecutors - the result of several interviews with witnesses and involved parties and state police studies of the accident - details a series of turns and coincidences that led to the crash.

St. Martin said she and Howard received a phone call from Caplan, asking them to pick him up at the Target store at the Columbia Crossing shopping center. According to the statement of facts, St. Martin, who said she was unfamiliar with the area, told investigators that Caplan wanted a ride to his west Columbia house but was "unclear in his directions."

For some reason, St. Martin drove east, away from the direction of Caplan's house, and across Interstate 95. They were on their way back toward Columbia when the accident occurred.

Approaching from the southbound Interstate 95 exit ramp was Dicks, who had just delivered a shipment at a Baltimore plant. Dicks told investigators that he was heading back to Virginia but got off the interstate to get something to drink for his girlfriend, who was also in the truck.

Prosecutors said Dicks, who noticed the traffic light was not working, "slowed down" to look for oncoming traffic and continued driving.

St. Martin told investigators that she saw the tractor-trailer approaching, but she thought "[the truck] was slowing down," so she continued driving, according to court records. St. Martin also told investigators that she did not see the posted signs warning of a traffic light at the intersection.

As a result of the accident, local and state policymakers launched changes in traffic light safety. Police are now required to put up temporary signs or flares at a traffic light that is not working. In addition, the county and state government have installed backup batteries on some traffic signals. A spokesman for the State Highway Administration said a backup battery was installed at the Route 175 and Interstate 95 exit this summer.

Dicks' attorney for the traffic violations, Timothy S. Mitchell, has said his client did not violate any traffic laws during the incident. Mitchell said state police investigators improperly interpreted the law, determining the roadway that should have the right of way at the intersection.

"If the officer determined the road was different than he determined, he would have focused on the girl's inexperience and her speed and her lack of judgment," Mitchell said.

tyrone.richardson@baltsun.com

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