Crash victim sues state over black ice on Gold Star Bridge

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Barry Graham of Dartmouth, Mass., was driving from his girlfriend's home on Long Island to his job in Massachusetts on a cold December morning in 2011, when his Ford pickup truck slid out of control on black ice on the northbound span of the Gold Star Memorial Bridge, which he claims in a lawsuit should already have been treated by the state Department of Transportation.

State police had notified the Department of Transportation at 5:49 that morning that the bridge was icy, according to Graham's complaint in New London Superior Court.

The bridge remained untreated at 6:38 a.m., when Graham's pickup truck rolled on its right side about a tenth of a mile south of the Groton town line and collided with the bridge structure, coming to rest facing south.

"This is the 21st century," Graham's attorney, Ralph J. Monaco, said during a phone interview Monday. "You would hope that if somebody knew about a problem an hour ago, the DOT or police would take action to protect people."

The state police had closed the bridge by the time a DOT salt truck arrived, according to the complaint.

Graham sued the state under the defective highway act, but in May 2015, New London Judge Leeland J. Cole-Chu granted the state's motion for summary judgment after finding that the DOT's response time to the icy bridge was reasonable. 

In a decision reported Monday, state Appellate Court Judges Michael R. Sheldon, Eliot D. Prescott and Thomas G. West ruled that Graham should have his day in court.

"One of the issues is whether an hour is enough time for the state to mobilize and do something," Monaco said. "There were multiple accidents before my client's accident."

Graham suffered injuries to the back, neck, right shoulder, right hand, head, mouth and teeth, according to his attorney. The pot of tomato sauce and meatballs that Graham's girlfriend had sent home with him spilled all over the car, making the scene look extremely bloody, Monaco said.

The appellate judges wrote in their decision that "Connecticut case law dictates that the question of whether the DOT reasonably responded to the report of a highway defect is a multifactorial determination that must be made by the finder of fact at trial."

Hartford attorney Jeffrey C. Pingpank, who is representing DOT, did not immediately respond to a voice message.

According to the complaint, state police had called the DOT operations center in Bridgeport at 5:49 a.m. following an accident on the bridge at 5:40 a.m. The communication center called Jay D'Antonio, supervisor of DOT's maintenance garage in Waterford, with instructions to send a crew out to salt the surface of the bridge.

D'Antonio dispatched crew supervisor Theodore Engel, who lived in Madison and needed to go to the Waterford facility and load a truck with salt before going to the bridge.

By the time Engel and a helper reached the bridge, the accident already had occurred, and state police had closed the bridge.

Graham has ongoing medical problems, particularly with his back, as a result of the accident, Monaco said.

Though Graham and his attorney have overcome one legal hurdle, the plaintiff's case still may be hard to prove at trial. Monaco said that under the state's limited highway defect law, he has to prove the state was 100 percent at fault for the accident. He said Graham was driving below the speed limit when he "hit a patch of ice and went flying."

The case will now return to New London Superior Court for further proceedings.

k.florin@theday.com

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