December 6, 2012

Father's Wrongful Death Lawsuit for Daughter Finally Makes It to Trial, but Jury Rules that Defendant Was Not Negligent: Tollenger v. State of Maryland, et al

by Lebowitz & Mzhen

800px-Hatem_Bridge.jpgA father’s long legal battle over the 2001 death of his daughter in a car accident may have come to an end in November, when a jury ruled that the state of Maryland was not negligent in its maintenance of the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, where the accident occurred. The lawsuit, Tollenger v. State of Maryland, et al, alleged that various state transportation agencies negligently failed to place a dividing barrier on the bridge to separate the four lanes of traffic. The state had successfully argued that the Maryland Tort Claims Act (MTCA) contained an implied exception shielding the state from liability for discretionary planning, but the Maryland Court of Special Appeals reversed that judgment in 2011 and remanded the case for trial. The November verdict was on the sole issue of whether the state was legally responsible for the death of the plaintiff’s daughter and other individuals.

The accident occurred during a rainstorm on August 10, 2001, when 12 year-old Ashley Tollenger was riding in a pickup truck driven by her stepfather, 52 year-old Kenneth Connor. The truck reportedly hit a patch of water on the bridge, which extends over the Susquehanna River, and began to hydroplane. The truck veered across the center line and into oncoming traffic, where a Jeep Cherokee collided with it. Ashley Tollenger was pronounced dead at the scene, and Connor was pronounced dead soon after at a nearby hospital.

Garrett Tollenger, Ashley’s father, filed suit in Harford County Circuit Court against the Maryland Transportation Authority, the State Highway Administration, the Maryland Department of Transportation, and other state defendants in August 2004. The lawsuit alleged that the state knew of potential hazards associated with the absence of a center barrier on the bridge, and that it was negligent in failing to place such a barrier. The plaintiff’s witnesses included other individuals who were injured in accidents on the bridge, and a former Harford County executive who had written to the state requesting construction of a barrier on the bridge.

The Maryland Department of Transportation moved for summary judgment in August 2009, arguing that the doctrine of sovereign immunity barred the lawsuit. The trial judge granted summary judgment, holding that, because public officials were individually immune from suit, state agencies were similarly immune from claims related to the discretionary decision not to build a barrier on the bridge. In a July 2011 opinion, the Court of Special Appeals reversed the summary judgment order, finding that the MTCA, as originally enacted in 1981, allowed claims against the state for injuries caused by “the patently dangerous condition of a...public improvement owned and controlled by the State.” Tollenger v. State, No. 2118, September Term, 2009, slip. op. at 7 (Md. Spec. App. July 5, 2011).

The case proceeded to trial in November 2012 on the question of the state’s responsibility for the deaths of Ashley Tollenger and Kenneth Connor, based on a different judge’s pretrial order bifurcating the trial. The jury returned a verdict on November 19, 2012, finding that the state was not liable for the deaths. Had the jury found for the plaintiff, Tollenger could have pursued damages in a separate trial.

Lebowitz & Mzhen’s automobile accident attorneys are skilled at pursuing justice for people in Maryland who have been injured or lost loved ones due to the negligent or illegal conduct of others. Contact us today online or at (800) 654-1949 for a free and confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Two Senior Citizens Killed in Benedict, Maryland, Car Accident, Maryland Accident Law Blog, September 20, 2011

Family Says Maryland to Blame for Faulty Bay Bridge Construction that Contributed to Truck Driver’s Wrongful Death, Maryland Accident Law Blog, December 14, 2009

$19 Million Maryland Wrongful Death Lawsuit Filed by Victims of Deadly 2007 Bay Bridge Accident, Maryland Accident Law Blog, April 27, 2009

Photo credit: 'Hatem Bridge' by Bill Lawson (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.