After years of back-and-forth in the courts, a lawsuit filed in 2004 against the State of Maryland over the death of a 12-year-old girl in a 2001 crash on the Hatem Bridge is finally being heard this week in Harford County Circuit Court in Bel Air.
The lead plaintiff, Garrett P. Tollenger of Churchville, is the father of Ashley Paige Tollenger, who was 12 when she and her stepfather, Kenneth Edward Connor, 52, were killed in a crash on the Hatem Bridge in Havre de Grace. He is also suing on behalf of his daughter's estate, for which he is personal representative.
The state defendants, which include the Maryland Transportation Authority, the Maryland Department of Transportation and the State Highway Administration, were negligent in not erecting a dividing barrier on the four-lane bridge, especially when they became aware of potential safety issues, Tollenger's lawyer, Clay Barnes, told a nine-member jury during opening arguments Wednesday morning before Judge M. Elizabeth Bowen.
The trial, which is being conducted to determine if there was negligence on the part of the defendants, is expected to continue through next week. There is no claim for monetary damages in this phase of the proceedings.
"The state has failed to use reasonable care to protect the public," Barnes told the jury.
Tollenger is not in court for sympathy, Barnes said; "he is here to see ... justice."
The Maryland Transportation Authority, however, said it was the weather the day of the crash, not the lack of Jersey barriers, that caused the accident and the two fatalities.
It was raining hard on Aug. 10, 2001, when Ashley and her stepfather, Mr. Connor, were riding west on the bridge on Route 40 over the Susquehanna River. Mr. Connor's pickup truck hit water, began to hydroplane and crossed the center line into oncoming traffic, police said in their 2001 report about the crash.
The pickup was hit by a Jeep Cherokee driving by a 21-year-old Colora man, 21, whose passenger was a 17-year-old Havre de Grace girl. The Jeep hit the pickup on the passenger side, killing Ashley almost instantly; Mr. Connor was pronounced dead at nearby Harford Memorial Hospital.
"The other half of the story is this is a case of misplaced blame," Stephen Thibodeau, an assistant attorney general for Maryland, told the jury during opening arguments. "As tragic a loss as Ashley Tollenger's life is, and it is a tragic loss, it is not the fault of the Maryland Transportation Authority."
While the plaintiff claims the accident happened because there were no barriers between lanes, and the state was negligent, "the evidence will demonstrate that simply is not true," Thibodeau said.
"The cause of the accident was Mr. Connor lost control of the vehicle," he said.
Among the witnesses in the case is Jim Harkins, who wrote a letter to the state asking for safety improvements to the bridge when he was Harford County executive. Now head of the Maryland Environmental Service, a state-controlled agency, Harkins testified Wednesday afternoon.
Barnes told the jury during his opening statement that, after one fatal crash on the bridge and another serious one a few months later, the state had considered erecting some type of barrier and examined its options.
In February 2000, Harkins, in his official capacity as the county executive, wrote a letter to the Maryland Transportation Authority requesting a study be done on putting some type of divider on the bridge, Barnes said.
His request was prompted by a letter from Edward Myers, who was hurt in a crash on the bridge, just a couple of months after the 17-year-old son of a woman Myers knew was killed in a crash on the bridge.
"He implored [Harkins'] office to do something to make it safe," Barnes said.
What Harkins didn't know, Barnes told the jury, was that a week or so earlier, the transportation authority's chief engineer had recommended that a concrete barrier be installed down the center of the bridge.
"That had been done internally by the Maryland Transportation Authority's chief engineer," Barnes said.