Accord found without lawsuits

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They gathered to put price tags on the broken bones, the emotional trauma and a life that was lost. It was nearly a year to the day after a truck had knocked down a Baltimore Beltway overpass during evening rush hour, and the injured and the bereaved were demanding compensation.

But they were not in a courthouse. They were in a downtown hotel, ignoring the swimming-pool horseplay just outside the window and watching a retired appeals court judge scurry from room to room.

And, in the end, forging a $2.6 million settlement that's being hailed as a model for a new era in justice.

"To have this significant a settlement without a lawsuit at all, that's really wonderful," said Rachel A. Wohl, executive director of the Maryland Alternative Dispute Resolution Commission, a 2-year-old panel that encourages mediation as a way to help break logjams in the state's courts. "That's really the ideal."

Ideal, she said, because it pre-empted a lengthy legal battle that could have tied up courtrooms and brought more trauma to the victims. Instead, the case was resolved after a single day of mediated negotiations.

That session, held June 3 at the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel, was, to some, draining. It was, at times, emotional.

One participant had come to know her father only about three years earlier, and now had to hear of the unusual accident that caused his death. Others, still slowed by their injuries, knew that hundreds of thousands of dollars might be at stake.

Still, they knew the long day at the hotel was probably their best option.

"If we would have went to trial, I think it probably would have lasted a while, and it probably wouldn't have been a pretty thing," said Henri Patrice Williams, who is set to undergo another round of physical therapy for the leg injuries she suffered in the accident on June 8, 1999. "All the other people who were injured, they said the same thing: They didn't want to relive this any more than they had to."

J. Allan Cohen, a lawyer in the case, described mediation as the wave of the future.

'A good day'

"We kept the case out of the courts, saved all kinds of money for all kinds of people, and the case is resolved," he said. "It was a good day."

Cohen, along with his son and law associate, Adam Sean Cohen, clearly recalls the evening they heard about the accident. Like many in greater Baltimore, he said, they could hardly believe the initial reports of a bridge toppling onto a busy highway.

Of all the vehicles on the highway at the time, three happened to crash into the debris. Robert N. Taylor, a 54-year-old port of Baltimore worker, was dead, and three women were seriously injured. An investigation showed that a backhoe being transported on a tractor-trailer knocked the bridge onto the Beltway.

"I remember seeing [the truck] and saying, 'I either need to pass him or stay away from him,'" recalled Williams, 29, whose Toyota Corolla crashed into the fallen bridge. She softly added, "But that didn't really work."

Legal help

Within days, the phone rang at the Cohens' law office. A 33-year-old Northwest Baltimore woman named Gwendolyn Taylor was calling.

"She said, 'I need an attorney because my father has been killed. ... You know the bridge that fell?'" said Adam Cohen, 29, who has been practicing law for four years. "I was blown away."

Taylor had called the Cohens because they had done legal work for one of her relatives. Now they were dispatching investigators to collect information for a potential "cause of action."

Soon all the victims had lawyers - and T.T.K. Transport Inc., the Canadian trucking company involved in the crash, had its own legal team looking into the accident.

Brian S. Goodman, a Baltimore lawyer representing the trucking company, said that although his client raised some "technical" defenses, "it was pretty clear that we bore some responsibility for this incident." Early last winter, Goodman suggested that the two sides hire a mediator to help reach a settlement.

Initial suspicions

Not all of the victims' lawyers immediately embraced the idea.

"I was very suspicious of the process in this particular case, given the magnitude of the damages and the number of attorneys and parties involved," said Ronald S. Landsman, a lawyer representing one of Robert Taylor's survivors.

Patrick J. O'Guinn, who represented Williams, said, "It's the typical lawyer mindset that says, 'If I file a lawsuit it's going to get better.' But that's not the case."

For that matter, filing suit can sometimes poison the negotiating atmosphere, said Roger C. Wolf, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law and chairman of the state bar association's committee on Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

"What this case shows is that if parties are well-intentioned ... you don't need a lawsuit to share information and sit down at the table and work out a resolution," he said.

Wolf's committee is part of a push in the past decade to encourage new ways of resolving conflict. Drawing on generations-old principles by which Quaker communities have resolved conflicts, organizations are promoting ADR in disputes between businesses, between neighbors and even between schoolchildren.

Growing trend

Experts say Maryland has been behind in this trend, but is catching up. Wohl, from the state ADR commission, said her organization's $1.3 million budget includes money to operate a statewide association of community mediation centers and to pay for retreats where educators exchange ideas about conflict resolution. In the business world, some 4,000 companies - including Maryland corporations such as Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. - have signed the nonprofit CPR Institute for Dispute Resolution's pledge promising to explore the use of ADR in resolving conflicts.

In the courts, programs have been established throughout Maryland to mediate domestic cases and other civil matters. Wolf said new programs in Baltimore City and Montgomery County are aimed at mediating disputes before suits are filed.

'Settlement judge'

Howard S. Chasanow, who retired last year as a Maryland Court of Appeals judge, has worked as a "settlement judge" and has privately mediated a half-dozen cases. When the lawyers from both sides of the bridge collapse agreed in April to mediate their dispute, Chasanow was chosen to oversee the mediation.

By the time the sides met at the Omni, lawyers for the victims had agreed on what percentage of the settlement each person would receive.

After considering the caps that state law places on recovery of non-economic damages and the limits of the trucking company's insurance policy, they decided to seek about $3.2 million.

The morning of June 3, those whose lives had been affected by the crash met as a group for the first time at the Omni.

There was Elizabeth Freeman, a 69-year-old retirement village resident who suffered a shattered ankle, broken wrist and crushed sternum. She was joined by Williams, who now lives in Detroit.

Regina Lee Brehon, who suffered a broken ankle and the loss of Robert Taylor, her companion of more than two decades, was there with two of Taylor's daughters: Gwendolyn Taylor and Pamela White, a 36-year-old mother of two from Hanover, Va., who had established a relationship with her father about three years before the accident, her lawyer said.

Emotional process

Taylor's survivors were emotional during the mediation session, with White, in particular, venting her feelings through her tears, said Chasanow and the lawyers.

"I guess I was probably unconsciously conveying more sympathy toward the daughter who had grown up with the victim, and [White] really broke down," Chasanow said. "I think she felt that we all didn't understand the deep hurt she felt because of suddenly having this relationship, and having it destroyed after just having found him."

White and Gwendolyn Taylor declined to comment on the process. Brehon was on vacation last week and could not be reached.

At the mediation session, the lawyers first outlined their claims for Chasanow. Then representatives of the trucking company went into a separate room. Chasanow met with one side, then the other, conveying proposals and holding some information confidential - such as the plaintiffs' bottom-line figure in the negotiations.

At times, the sides seemed to be at impasse, but near the end of the day, a deal was struck.

In an era of cellular phones, laptop computers and fax machines, Williams' lawyer, O'Guinn, reached for a yellow legal pad and scribbled out the terms. The lawyers and the victims lined up to sign.

Reaching an agreement

The state of Maryland received $100,000 - not enough to cover all the overtime and other expenses associated with the crash, but enough to pay for the contractors who cleaned up the fallen bridge, said Linda Strozyk, an assistant attorney general.

Taylor's two daughters received almost $500,000 each, their lawyers said.

Brehon's lawyer would not say how much his client received. Williams also declined to give a figure, but O'Guinn said her share was the largest of any of the plaintiffs.

Elizabeth Freeman said her share amounted to about $300,000, after deducting her legal fees and about $44,000 in medical bills.

Of the settlement, she said, "You don't want to put anybody out of business, but you still would like to know you're going to be taken care if you have any more medical bills. ... I'm left with a limp, and I don't think it's going to get any better."

Williams said that, more than anything, she is glad the case has been resolved.

"There's really no amount they can give me to compensate me," she said. "If I could take it back, and it didn't happen at all, I would prefer that to the money."

Sun staff writer Joan Jacobson contributed to this article.

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