Harford jury finds state was not negligent in 2001 Hatem Bridge deaths

A Harford County jury has determined the State of Maryland and several of its principal transportation agencies were not negligent in connection with a 2001 accident on the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge that killed two Harford County residents.

The jury of six women, who heard a lawsuit brought by the father of one of the victims, 12-year-old Ashley Tollenger, of Churchville, reached its verdict late Friday afternoon, following a trial in Bel Air before Circuit Court Judge M. Elizabeth Bowen that began Nov. 7.

Garrett Tollenger, Ashley's father, sued the state, the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Maryland Transportation Authority, claiming their failure to repair defects in the bridge's roadway and to construct a crash barrier separating the oncoming lanes of the four-lane bridge contributed to the death of his daughter and her stepfather, Kenneth Connor, 52, of Havre de Grace.

The girl's estate, for which her father is personal representative, was also a plaintiff in the suit, which was originally filed in 2004 and had been the subject of a lengthy series of legal maneuvers by all sides before the alleged negligence issue finally made it to the courtroom this month.

Based on an earlier pretrial ruling by another judge, this trial was held to determine if the state bore any responsibility for the deaths. Had the plaintiffs prevailed in this phase, they would have had the option of seeking damages in a separate legal proceeding.

"We're obviously very disappointed," Jo Ann Tollenger, Garrett Tollenger's sister, said Monday morning. She sat through most of the trial and said one juror told her afterward that they were initially deadlocked, but then two of the three who were inclined to vote for the plaintiffs eventually switched and then the lone holdout reluctantly joined the majority.

"I don't know if it's over, but it's been a long battle," she said about the possibility of an appeal.

"It was really tough to listen to that, it was like dying a second time," Jo Ann Tollenger said about the accident, details of which were gone over in great detail during the trial, as two people who survived the crash and a third who witnessed it were among those who testified.

Also testifying were former engineers for the Maryland Transportation Authority, which is responsible for operating and maintaining the bridge, and two accident reconstructionists.

MDTA, through its director of communications, Cheryl Sparks, issued a statement Monday regarding the verdict.

"This was a tragic event for the families involved. However, as we said at the beginning of the trial, blaming the State of Maryland and the Maryland Transportation Authority for that tragedy was misplaced, and it is apparent that the jury agreed with that assessment," the statement read.

Sparks said the state would have no further comment.

According to trial testimony about the accident, Mr. Connor was driving his Mazda pickup truck, with Ms. Tollenger as his passenger, west from Perryville to Havre de Grace shortly after 4:30 p.m. on Aug. 10, 2001, when a sudden thunderstorm came up and made visibility difficult on the bridge.

The pickup, which was in the far right hand slow lane, went out of control and crossed over the two fast lanes, striking on the passenger side a Jeep Grand Cherokee that was traveling in the eastbound slow lane. No other vehicles were involved. Ms. Tollenger was pronounced dead at the scene. Mr. Connor died a short time later at Harford Memorial Hospital. The two occupants of the other vehicle suffered serious, but non-life threatening injuries.

A central issue to the plaintiffs' case was that MDTA had engineering reports developed after previous serious accidents on the bridge, including one with a fatality, that had recommended installation of a crash barrier down the middle of the bridge to separate the opposing lanes of traffic. A project to erect a concrete Jersey barrier subsequently had been approved, but was inexplicably terminated about 10 months prior to the August 2001 accident.

While the state did not dispute the existence of the engineering data, some of which it tried to suppress without success early on in the case, its lawyers argued there was no willful intent to avoid erecting the barrier or to fail to make repairs to the roadway. Nor, they said, could it be documented that the condition of the road was a contributing cause of the accident.

An expert witness for the state also testified there was no evidence a barrier would have prevented the deaths of the occupants of the Mazda pickup, explaining the barrier would have most likely "redirected" the vehicle back into the westbound lanes, where there was no telling what might have happened with respect to a possible collision with other vehicles headed in the same direction or with the Jersey barrier that did exist down either side of the bridge.

At the time of the accident, the center of the bridge was lined with plastic bollards erected at intervals to warn drivers to keep to right of the center. Within months, however, MDTA did install a permanent concrete Jersey barrier down the center, which remains in place today. That information was not disclosed in testimony to the jury because, according to Jo Ann Tollenger, the judge disallowed it during one of the trial's many bench conferences on the grounds it would have been prejudicial to the defendants.

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