Maryland State Agencies Found Not Liable in Father’s Wrongful Death Suit

A Maryland jury recently ruled that the state could not be held liable for a 2001 auto accident on a Maryland bridge that killed a young girl, likely ending her father’s years-long legal battles.

The crash occurred during heavy rain on August 10, 2001 on the Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge, which spans the Susquehanna River. Kenneth Connor, 52, and his stepdaughter Ashley Tollenger, 12, reportedly hit a patch of standing water, causing Connor to lose control of the pickup truck. The truck veered out of its lane and was struck by an oncoming SUV. Tollenger died on scene, and Connor died shortly thereafter at a local hospital.

In 2004, Ashley’s father Garrett Tollenger filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Harford County naming several state defendants, including the Maryland Department of Transportation and the State Highway Administration. Tollenger alleged that the state was aware of potential dangers caused by the lack of a center barrier to separate traffic and was negligent in deciding against placing a barrier.

In August 2009, a trial judge granted the Maryland DOT’s motion for summary judgment, which argued that sovereign immunity prevented such lawsuits. The judge held that because individual public officials were immune, so were the state agencies with which they were employed.

The Court of Special Appeals reversed that summary judgment in July 2011, saying that the Maryland Tort Claims Act of 1981 allowed lawsuits against the state for injuries sustained as a result of hazardous public improvements owned and operated by the state.

Tollenger’s case then proceeded to trial in November 2012, and on November 19, the jury rendered a verdict finding the state not liable for his daughter’s death.

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