Family Sues Md. In Bay Bridge Crash

Inadequate Maintenance, Unsafe 2-way Traffic Alleged

December 25, 2009|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,

The family of the truck driver who died when his tractor-trailer plunged off the Bay Bridge in August 2008 is suing the state, alleging that the Maryland Transportation Authority failed to adequately maintain the structure and improperly allowed two-way traffic on the eastbound span.

In a filing this month, the estate and survivors of John R. Short Sr. added the state and the authority as defendants in a $7 million lawsuit filed in Queen Anne's County Circuit Court against the driver of a car that crossed the center line and allegedly set off the chain of events that led to the drowning of the Willards resident.

The crash was the first and only time in the nearly 60-year history of the Bay Bridge that a vehicle broke through its barriers and landed in the water.

The family's lawyer, Keith D. Franz of Azreal, Gann & Franz in Baltimore, said that under a sovereign immunity statute, the state's liability in the case is capped at $200,000. But Franz said the family is interested in forcing the state to make changes in how it operates the bridge.

Specifically, Franz said, the lawsuit will seek to force the state to reconsider its policy of allowing two-way traffic on one of the twin spans at certain times.

On the night of the crash, the two-lane eastbound span was operating in both directions because deck-replacement work was being done on the three-lane westbound span. At other times, the authority permits two-way traffic on the westbound span when there is a heavy flow of traffic toward the Eastern Shore.

The fatal crash occurred on a Sunday at 3:48 a.m. when a Chevrolet Camaro operated by Candy Baldwin, then 19, crossed the center line into the path of the tractor-trailer. According to the lawsuit, Short took evasive action to avoid a head-on collision but was struck on the left front tire of the truck and at the third axle.

According to the lawsuit, damage to the tires sent the truck careering off the right parapet and up the left parapet to the point where a section of the barrier failed, allowing the truck to break through. Franz said Short, 57, was not killed by the impact with the wall or the water but drowned when he could not get out of the submerged cab. The Camaro driver and her passenger were injured in the crash.

Baldwin, who had been drinking before the crash, was later charged with three motor vehicle violations after the Queen Anne's County state's attorney determined that there was insufficient evidence to charge her with a crime. She paid a $470 fine in January. The Short family sued her in June. That case is in mediation.

Franz said he's prepared to show that two-way operations on the Bay Bridge are "inherently dangerous." He said that while only 10 percent of vehicles use the bridge while it is in two-way operation, 70 percent of the fatalities on the bridge occur during those periods.

The state is facing at least one other lawsuit concerning two-way bridge operations. It involves a May 10, 2007, crash in which three Eastern Shore men were killed after a trailer on another vehicle came loose while the westbound span was carrying traffic both ways.

In the wake of the crash that killed Short, the transportation authority conducted an inspection of the bridge that uncovered corrosion in the metal bolts that hold in place the concrete barriers that make up the bridge walls. The discovery prompted then-Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari to order that the eastbound span be closed for emergency repairs. Major backups took place on the westbound bridge during the weeks the eastbound span was closed.

The Short family's lawsuit contends that the authority was negligent in maintaining the bridge before the crash. Franz said he will show that state officials knew about the corrosion problem as far back as the 1980s but failed to take steps to correct it.

"They were told to epoxy-coat the bolts, and they chose not to," Franz said.

An authority spokeswoman could not be reached Thursday because the office was closed. However, the state generally does not comment on pending lawsuits.

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