Testimony is due to resume Tuesday in a lawsuit that claims negligence by the State of Maryland and three of its transportation agencies contributed to a 2001 motor vehicle accident that killed two people on the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge.
The suit by Garrett Tollenger, the father of one of the deceased victims, 12-year-old Ashley Tollenger, claims the Maryland Transportation Authority failed to correct roadway defects and install a center crash barrier, which might have prevented the girl's death. Ashley Tollenger's estate, for which her father is personal representative, is also a plaintiff.
In addition to the state government and the Maryland Transportation Authority, defendants include the Maryland Department Transportation Department and the State Highway Administration.
After nearly eight years of delays, precipitated by legal maneuvering that included unsuccessful efforts by the state to dismiss the suit and to suppress the release of certain internal documents, the trial finally started last Wednesday before Judge M. Elizabeth Bowen and a jury of seven women and two men. The trial is expected to last the rest of this week.
In opening arguments, one defense lawyer said the accident, though "a tragic loss" of lives, was not the fault of the state but rather the failure of one the drivers involved, Kenneth Connor, to control his vehicle under adverse conditions.
Any blame due the state is "misplaced," said Stephen Thibodeau, who represents the state along with Damon Pace.
Mr. Connor, 52, who was driving a Mazda pickup in which Ashley Tollenger was a passenger, was the girl's stepfather. He also died in the accident.
The plaintiffs, who are represented by Clay Barnes, claim the state knew there were potentially hazardous conditions for drivers using the four-lane bridge, not the least of which was the absence of a center median barrier to prevent vehicles traveling in one direction from crossing into lanes of oncoming traffic.
MDTA engineering reports were introduced into evidence by Barnes last week that recommended installation of either a permanent steel barrier, a temporary concrete barrier or a permanent concrete barrier, commonly called a Jersey barrier. In his opening argument, Barnes said MDTA had approved a project to install a Jersey barrier and then inexplicably canceled it in October 2000, 10 months before the accident that killed Ms. Tollenger and Mr. Connor.
Under a pretrial ruling, the plaintiffs must first prove negligence on the part of one or all of the defendants in this phase of the case. If they are successful, a second trial will be held on the issue of any damages due the plaintiffs.
'A nice day until…'
During Friday's testimony, a passenger in the other vehicle involved in the accident recalled that Aug. 10, 2001 was "a nice day until we hit the bridge," when there was a sudden downpour.
"It was raining so hard, you could barely see," said Rebecca Wren, of Havre de Grace, who was a passenger in a Jeep Cherokee driven by Harry Klotz, of Colora.
Wren, who was 17 at the time, said she was riding in the front seat of the Cherokee, which was traveling in the "slow lane" - the right eastbound lane going from Havre de Grace to Perryville, when they saw the back end of a pickup truck traveling in the opposite westbound direction "starting to swerve."
Under questioning by Barnes, Wren she saw the white Mazda truck, driven by Mr. Connor, coming toward them, moving from side to side, but could not see inside it because "it was raining so hard."
"We hit the brakes but [the pickup] hit us and spun around the same direction as us," said Wren, who also recalled the accident happened in a "split second."
When the pickup hit their vehicle on the driver's side, Wren said she "screamed" and recalled that Klotz ended up nearly sitting her lap from the impact. She said she frantically began calling 9-1-1, "but they couldn't understand me, I was crying so hard."
When Barnes asked Wren if she was injured, Pace, one of the state's lawyers, objected, leading to one of many conferences at the bench among the lawyers and Bowen throughout Friday's proceedings.
"I had a seat belt on, but I hit the dashboard so hard I tore a ligament in my right knee…they couldn't repair it," Wren said when her testimony resumed. When she began to talk about the long-term effects of the injury, Pace objected again, the judge sustained it.
Wren then described how she and Klotz were trapped in the Cherokee and had to be pulled out from the back by rescue workers.