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Baltimore approves $50,000 settlement with man who fell into utility hole left open for months

Baltimore’s spending board approved a $50,000 settlement Wednesday with a man who fell into a utility hole left open for months, acknowledging it had inadequate records to defend the city and no documentation that would tie the problem to a contractor.

The settlement, approved by the Board of Estimates, will resolve a claim by Darrin Tinker over a 2016 incident when he rode a bicycle into the water-filled hole in a sidewalk in his Towson neighborhood. The front wheel fell into the hole, tossing him face first unto the ground. According to the board’s agenda, Tinker broke his jaw, a forearm and one wrist and incurred more than $15,000 in medical bills.

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Yosef Kebede, acting head of the city’s Bureau of Water & Wastewater, said city crews dug the hole in the 8400 block of Greenway Road in 2016 to access an underground water meter vault and for a meter upgrade. City workers maintain a joint water system that includes Baltimore County.

City records show crews used cones and caution tape to “secure” the area in July 2016, but the cones and tape no longer surrounded the hole when Tinker crashed in November of that year, Kebede said.

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Democratic City Comptroller Bill Henry, one of five members of the Board of Estimates, said he took issue with Kebede’s use of the word “secure” to describe the city’s efforts.

“I’m saying putting up cones and tape to make sure people can see there’s a hole is not the same as securing the hole,” Henry said. “That is calling attention to the hole.”

Matthew Garbark, Baltimore City’s acting director of the Department of Public Works and a member of the spending board, said city policy states that utility holes should never be left open. They should be covered or filled or crews should install a physical barricade, he said.

“Did you determine why we had work done in July but in November when the plaintiff tried to bike over a shallow pool of water, why was there was still a hole there several months later?” Henry asked.

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“I believe, based on the fact that there were meter conversions on that street, based on the fact that there was a problem with the meter,” Kebede replied. “Maybe the flurry of activity of work? I understand that is not a satisfying answer.”

Henry said he also took issue with Kebede’s description of a “flurry” of activity at the location, since the hole existed for months.

Kebede said Itron, a utility company that received a more than $80 million contract to upgrade Baltimore’s water meters to a digital system, was the contractor that last worked at the site before the crash. Itron was responsible for covering the hole, he said.

Henry questioned whether Itron could therefore be responsible for the settlement.

Elizabeth Ryan, an attorney with the city’s law office, said Baltimore has no record of a referral to a contractor for the hole. There also aren’t records of what was supposed to happen there or who was supposed to do the work, she said.

What city records do show is city crews digging the hole in the summer. By October, records show the city called a utility hotline about the area, signaling they were again planning to dig, she said. There are no records of Itron calling the utility hotline, she said.

“I felt, as the trial lawyer, what we were left with at the end of the day was not many records to defend ourselves and not many records to go against someone else,” Ryan said.

An Itron spokesperson did not immediately respond Wednesday to a request for comment.

The spending board’s agenda said the city’s co-defendants in Tinker’s claim in Baltimore Circuit Court — Baltimore County and Loch Raven Holdings LLC, the owner of an adjacent apartment complex — are also contributing to the settlement. Baltimore County paid $10,000, while the apartments owner contributed $5,000, so that Tinker will receive a total of $65,000.

Tinker and his attorney could not immediately be reached Wednesday for comment.

Henry, who voted in favor of the settlement along with the rest of the board, questioned whether the city had improved its record keeping to avoid similar situations in the future.

Garbark said the department is working to upgrade its workflow management process.

“Obviously, this is a failure. It rests with DPW. We’re ultimately responsible for this incident,” Garbark said. “I believe we’re trying to do many things to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

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