Despite concern with the way wind-related travel restrictions were handled at the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel, the evidence was insufficient to show those problems caused the death of a truck driver whose rig went over the side four years ago, a Northampton County circuit judge has ruled.
While the failure of causation evidence led Judge Leslie L. Lilley to dismiss a widow’s lawsuit, he also ruled that the bridge-tunnel commission was protected from tort claims by sovereign immunity.
Billie Jo Chen, whose husband, Joseph, died in February 2017 shortly after his 18-wheeler plummeted into the waters, alleged the bridge-tunnel operators shouldn’t have allowed him to cross the 17.6-mile span at the time because winds were too strong.
After presiding over a three-day bench trial in Northampton County in December, Lilley ruled Feb. 26 the bridge-tunnel would avoid liability.
Joseph Chen, 47, of Greenville, North Carolina, was an experienced trucker on the homebound leg of his regular delivery run for a seafood company when he died, according to news reports.
The lawsuit, which sought $6 million in damages, alleged the bridge-tunnel violated its wind policy by letting Chen cross with a nearly empty trailer when gusts as high as 50 mph were recorded.
Witnesses testified about the wind conditions and Chen’s driving. Experts weighed in on the effects of the wind. Lilley rejected the commission’s contention that Chen’s own negligence contributed to the accident.
“There is evidence … that Chen may have been driving too fast for conditions, was talking on his CB radio at the time of the accident, and he had been driving the tractor-trailer longer than was permitted by law,” Lilley said. But Chen had successfully completed a passing maneuver and had moved partially adjacent to a vehicle in the right lane when the accident happened, and neither of two nearby truck drivers testified that Chen was speeding or driving in a reckless manner, the judge said.
Lilley concluded that wind – not a deficient restriction policy – was a proximate cause of the accident. The plaintiff’s evidence focused on differences between the wind restriction policy and its implementation, but the plaintiff failed to link any deficiencies to the accident, Lilley decided.
“[T]he Court concludes that the Plaintiff has not proven, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the CBBT implementation procedure was deficient or that reliance upon that procedure, under the circumstances of this case, was negligent,” Lilley wrote.
“While there is obvious concern that this procedure was developed without the benefit of scientific or engineering input or consideration, there is simply insufficient evidence to find by a preponderance of the evidence that the application of the wind restriction implementation procedure was a proximate cause of the accident. This conclusion resolves the issues in this case,” Lilley said.
But Lilley did not stop with his causation conclusion. He continued with an analysis of the Virginia Tort Claims Act, finding that the bridge-tunnel commission was a political subdivision of the commonwealth and was not a “transportation district.” Accordingly, the commission was “clothed with the Commonwealth’s immunity from tort liability,” he said.
The bridge-tunnel commission was represented by Jeffrey Hunn and Richard H. Matthews of Virginia Beach.
In an interview March 3, they took issue with criticism of the wind restriction plan. Experts who reviewed the procedures after the accident approved the plan, Matthews said. Nevertheless, Matthews and Hunn welcomed the win.
“We feel like it was a good, solid, well-reasoned opinion,” Matthews said.
The plaintiff was represented by Douglas Desjardins and other lawyers at the Pangia Law Group in Washington.
“Obviously Ms. Chen was very surprised and disappointed by the ruling,” Desjardins said. She is considering her options, including filing an appeal, Desjardins said March 3.
“As reflected in Judge Lilley’s Order, the parties all believed that the CBBT was a transportation district, and that it had waived sovereign immunity. Further Ms. Chen felt that the evidence was clear that [the commission’s] interpretation of the CBBT wind policy was so inconsistent from the written policy that it in fact directly deviated from the official policy,” Desjardin said.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press.
Updated March 12 to correct the description of the sovereign immunity holding.