Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Family to sue over bridge deaths

Family to sue over bridge deaths

The state and a Rockville motorist whose trailer detached on the Bay Bridge this spring causing a fatal pileup will face civil lawsuits over the incident.

Stephen Adam Burt, 46, escaped criminal charges last week in the wreck that killed three people.

But a Baltimore attorney for the family of Randall R. Orff, 47, and his son, Jonathan R. Orff, 19, who were killed in the incident said the family will sue Mr. Burt and the Maryland Transportation Authority, which operates the bridge.

"It appears pretty clear Mr. Burt was at fault," attorney Paul Bekman said.

Mr. Burt could not be reached for comment.

Mr. Bekman said the family's lawsuit against the MdTA will allege that two-way traffic on the bridge at the time of the accident was a contributing factor.

On May 10, a homemade trailer being towed by Mr. Burt detached from his 2000 Lincoln Navigator on the westbound span of the Bay Bridge at the start of the evening rush hour. The Orffs were driving east on the westbound span when Mr. Burt's trailer detached and came into their lane.

The resulting seven-car pile up killed three, including the Orffs and James H. Ingle, 44, a former Crofton resident living on the Eastern Shore who still worked in west county. The accident also closed the bridge, a vital link to the Eastern Shore, well into the night.

A subsequent investigation found Mr. Burt did not use a pin to lock the tongue coupler and that the safety chains were too long, allowing the front of the trailer to drag on the ground when it became detached from the ball.

It is impossible to track the number of runaway trailer accidents, many of which are unreported fender benders, said Richard Klein, a consulting engineer for the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers, but decouplings can cause horrific accidents.

"I'm not sure it happens that often, but when one of them does happen, it's really bad," he said.

A 2005 study paid for by lock manufacturer Master Lock found 364 people were killed in highway accidents involving trailers in 2003. Slightly more than half of trailer owners failed to use all of the safety measures to secure their trailers.

Mr. Klein, who has offered expert testimony in cases involving runaway trailers, said most are the result of using too large of a coupler for the towing vehicle's ball and failure to secure the tongue lock or security chains.

"That is almost a no-brainer," Mr. Klein said. "I don't know how people can put that on without closing the latch. It's like leaving the door open."

Like cars, all trailers have to be inspected before they can be registered, according to the Maryland State Police. Inspectors go over the trailer's frame, suspension, hitch, and, if heaver than 3,000 pounds, brakes.

Maryland Transportation Authority Police spokesman Cpl. Jonathan Green said the trailer on the bridge accident had been inspected and its registration was up to date.

Though the reconstruction report, released last week, downplayed the significance of two-way traffic at the time of the accident, Mr. Bekman said it was a contributing factor the accident's severity.

"You can't just have an X on the light (directing traffic). That's not adequate warning," Mr. Bekman said.

With the threat of a potential lawsuit, a spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority could not comment on the accident or the role of two-way traffic.

A California company had previously approached the state about installing a temporary barrier on the Bay Bridge when it is being used for two-way traffic, but the talks never advanced.

The authority owns a temporary barrier system, purchased from California firm Barrier Systems Inc., which is used during construction on the Key Bridge in Baltimore.

Last week, the state announced Mr. Burt would not face any criminal charges in the accident because the Maryland Transportation Authority Police and the Anne Arundel State's Attorney's Office found "no current regulations exist that can be applied to the proper securement of a trailer by the public in a noncommercial manner."

"It would appear the laws could be tightened," said Kristin Riggin, a spokesman for State's Attorney Frank Weathersbee.

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