Lawsuit filed in 2011 wreck on 77

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Wind-related wreck leads to severe injuries for the plaintiff


HILLSVILLE — A lawsuit filed in Carroll Circuit Court seeks $3.5 million in damages from the Virginia Department of Transportation, related to a March 2011 wreck blamed on high winds on Interstate 77.

Kevin Williams of Lincolnton, N.C., who was driving a commercial truck at the time, filed the lawsuit after suffering "serious orthopedic injuries throughout his body" and "a severe traumatic brain injury," according to the suit filed last month by Hillsville attorney Jonathan McGrady.

McGrady has made news media aware of the lawsuit in the wake of the series of Easter Sunday crashes in fog on I-77 in Carroll that killed three people and injured 30 more. It required a response of more than 100 police, fire, rescue and related personnel.

Williams claims in the lawsuit that the March 6, 2011, accident could have been prevented by VDOT taking action after another tractor-trailer overturned near mile marker 2.8 northbound about 45 minutes prior to Williams' accident, according to McGrady and the court papers.

"The Commonwealth of Virginia has consistently denied my client's, Kevin Williams', claim and suit had to be filed," McGrady said in a message to the media.

"Mr. Williams suffered a severe, traumatic brain injury and serious orthopedic injuries as a result of his wreck and will likely never work again," McGrady wrote. "He has asked that I release a copy of the suit to the media with the hope that VDOT will take corrective measures so that lives may be saved in the future on Fancy Gap Mountain."

VDOT officials have a policy against speaking on the record about court cases, said VDOT spokesman Jason Bond, after being contacted by The Gazette. "We don't typically comment on pending lawsuits."


Accident description 


Three vehicles overturned due to winds on I-77 near mile marker 3 in the northbound lanes on March 6, 2011, according to reports shared with The Gazette at the time.

Workers on the scene believed that winds may have approached hurricane speeds.

Virginia State Police Trooper Chuck Campbell responded to two calls of two empty or partially empty tractor trailers getting knocked over by high winds at about 10:15 that night.

A northbound 2011 Kenworth, operated by David Tracy of Charlotte, NC., slowed at mile marker 2.8 for an accident ahead involving a vehicle pulling a trailer, according to police reports. That's when crosswinds rolled the truck onto its side on top of a guardrail.

(The accident involving the vehicle and trailer did not cause enough damage to result in a report.)

A second incident happened in the same spot at about 11:03 p.m. when a 2003 International driven by Williams was  turned over by the crosswinds, too.

One trailer was ripped open. Damage estimates included $35,000 for the Kenworth and $75,000 for the International.

A Virginia Department of Transportation spokeswoman said at the time that weather station information showed gusts in the area of up to 61 mph before midnight on Sunday.

"These empty trailers act like a big sail on a sail boat," Virginia State Police First Sgt. Mike Musser noted at the time. Once the wind catches them, there's not much a driver can do to correct the tractor-trailer.


Lawsuit details


Virginia Department of Transportation officials were well acquainted with the dangers that Interstate 77 poses to drivers, Williams' lawsuit alleges. VDOT had set up weather stations to gather information on road and weather conditions and report it to motorists through electronic message boards by the time of the 2011 incident.

The suit names VDOT's former Salem District Administrator Richard Caywood and an unknown employee assigned to monitor road conditions.

Despite the monitoring of I-77,  VDOT failed to take action to warn other drivers after the first tractor-trailer wreck mile marker 2.8, the lawsuit alleges.

"On or about March 6, 2011, at approximately 11 p.m., your plantiff was traveling north bound on Interstate 77 in a tractor trailer approaching the mountain," the court papers say.

"Unbeknownst to plaintiff, the mountain was being pummeled by extremely high sustained winds and wind gusts.

"Further unbeknownst to plaintiff, approximately 45 minutes before he arrived on the mountain, another tractor trailer heading northbound on Interstate 77 had been overturned near mile marker 2.8 by the high winds buffeting the mountain."

The suit alleges that even before the accidents, VDOT personnel knew the weather stations had taken wind measurements of 55 mph.

"Despite their knowledge of the dangerous conditions on the mountain, and despite their express knowledge that those conditions had already overturned one tractor-trailer, no warning was posted on the electronic message board in the northbound lanes south of the mountain until after plaintiff had already passed those electronic message boards," the suit says.

VDOT officials didn't take any steps to close the interstate despite conditions.


Negligence alleged 


The lawsuit argues that Caywood and the unknown employee exhibited gross negligence because they allegedly:

• failed to close I-77 after the accidents began.

• failed to warn travelers "of the dangerous and impassable conditions" after the first wreck happened.

• failed to have "appropriate procedures and/or devices to allow them to communicate timely information to travelers concerning dangerous and impassable conditions along Interstate 77 on Fancy Gap Mountain," despite a long history of strong winds.

• failed to have procedures in place to shut down I-77 "entirely or to certain classification of vehicles for whom it became impossible to travel [the] roadway without suffering injury."

• failed to provide training and oversight to employees to ensure "that they could respond in a timely and appropriate manner to conditions on the mountain."

• acted grossly and negligently in "maintenance, operation and oversight" of I-77 on that day.

As a result, Williams has incurred "substantial medical expense for hospitalization and other medical treatment, and it is reasonably expected that he will be forced to continue to incur substantial medical expenses throughout his life," the filing says.

"His injuries have had a catastrophic and life-altering impact on his day to day enjoyment of life. He is not, and never will be, the person he was prior to March 6, 2011."

The suit notes that the extent of Williams' injuries is shown through a worker's compensation lien for $294,279 filed on behalf of Ward's Trucking, Williams' employer.

For these reasons, the lawsuit seeks $3.5 million from the defendants.