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Bay Bridge wreck lawsuit close to settlement [The Capital, Annapolis, Md.]

Sept. 23--An insurance company will pay $100,000 to settle a lawsuit against a woman who caused a fatal wreck on the Bay Bridge two years ago, according to attorneys involved in the case.

The family of 57-year-old John R. Short Sr. -- a truck driver killed Aug. 10, 2008, when his rig went careening off the bridge -- decided not to pursue additional damages against Candy Lynn Baldwin after determining the former Kent County resident was "judgment-proof." Keith Franz, an attorney for the Short family, noted that she is 21, pregnant and now living in Alaska with her husband.

"We just reached the conclusion we wouldn't be able to secure any funds from her," said Franz, who sought $7 million in damages in June 2009 when he filed the original lawsuit against Baldwin. He added that if they did secure a judgment against Baldwin in excess of her insurance coverage, she could vacate it by filing for bankruptcy, since she was not charged with driving while intoxicated.

State Farm Insurance cut a $100,000 check for the Shorts earlier this week, according to Ted Staples, an attorney for Baldwin. He said the six-figure settlement represents the maximum possible personal injury claim allowed under Baldwin's policy at the time of the spectacular wreck that caused some to question the safety of the span.

Staples said the Shorts will receive the check later this month, after they sign a release.

"Ms. Baldwin is extremely remorseful," he said, describing the crash as a "tragic accident."

"She feels very sorry for what happened to the Short family," he said.

Attempts to reach John Short's widow, Connie Short, and children were unsuccessful. Franz said they did not wish to comment on the settlement.

The crash

Baldwin, formerly of Millington, was driving her 1997 Chevrolet Camaro east across the Bay Bridge about 3:45 a.m. when she fell asleep behind the wheel, crossed the center line and sideswiped Short's westbound tractor-trailer.

There was two-way traffic on the eastbound span at the time of the crash.

Police said Short, who was working for Delaware-based Mountaire Farms and hauling 24,000 pounds of refrigerated chickens -- tried to avoid hitting Baldwin's car on the narrow two-lane bridge. He bumped the right Jersey wall so that he only scraped the driver's side of Baldwin's car.

The maneuver, however, led Short to lose control of his rig. He veered left, clipped the passenger side of another eastbound vehicle and smashed through the opposite wall before landing 30 feet below in the Chesapeake Bay.

According to the lawsuit, Baldwin had attended her mother's wedding the day before in Millington and then gone clubbing in Baltimore with her cousin. While only 19 years old at the time, she drank three beers at the reception and one at the bar, police said.

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Blood tests performed two hours after the wreck placed Baldwin's blood-alcohol content at .036 -- far below the legal limit of .08.

Without a higher BAC, prosecutors decided four months after the wreck to not charge Baldwin with automobile manslaughter.

"These cases are obviously very difficult and tragic, but the determination is based not on the consequences of the act, but the act itself," said Frank Kratovil, who was Queen Anne's County state's attorney at the time of the wreck but was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives shortly thereafter. "The act of falling asleep while driving and drifting across the center line is not sufficient to constitute gross negligence."

Baldwin, who broke her kneecaps and injured her spleen and liver in the wreck, was charged with negligent driving, failure to drive right of center and violating a license restriction. She pleaded guilty to the charges in January 2009 and paid $470 in fines.

Five months after that, in June 2009, the Short family filed its lawsuit against Baldwin in Queen Anne's County Circuit Court.

Damage claims

While the pending settlement will close the wrongful death lawsuit, property damage claims will remain open.

According to Staples, the state of Maryland, Mountaire Farms, two tow truck companies and the driver of the third vehicle involved in the wreck are seeking additional funds from Baldwin. He estimated the total property damage tab at more than $300,000.

Like the Shorts, however, the parties seeking property damages from Baldwin will face an uphill climb to collect their money. Staples said his client's insurance covered only $50,000 in property damage claims and Baldwin has no other assets.

"It's that or it's nothing," Staples said of the insurance policy. "Everyone is trying to mediate this and settle it out."

Rob Moseley, an attorney for Mountaire Farms, said Tuesday that he hoped mediation would work. He said his client spent $200,000 just to hire a barge and pull the rig from the Chesapeake Bay.

"We are certainly ready to go through the process," he said of the negotiations.

Other claims

The settlement also doesn't end the Shorts' problems with the state.

The Short family amended its lawsuit in December to name the Maryland State Transportation Authority, asserting that the crash wouldn't have happened if the authority hadn't required traffic to run in both directions on the two-lane eastbound span that morning.

The family also noted that inspectors discovered corrosion in the bridge's Jersey walls after the crash. They argued that if the bridge had been better maintained, Short's truck would not have broken through the wall and would have stayed on the bridge.

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Franz said his clients agreed in July to drop the state from the lawsuit in return for a promise that authority officials would work with them to make the bridge safer. If the state doesn't keep its promise, the family is free to refile the lawsuit, he said.

"The goal (of the legal action against the state) ... was never financial," Franz said.

While the Shorts plan to meet with the authority to discuss possible changes to the bridge, no such meeting is currently scheduled.

Officials with the authority declined yesterday to comment on the proposed meeting or what changes they would be willing to make to the bridge and its operation. Cheryl Sparks, a spokeswoman for the authority, noted that the agency was still dealing with other "unresolved issues" related to the crash.

Franz said he was not worried about the authority backing out of its agreement.

"Our understanding is that all issues are on the table with them," Franz said. "They have been responsive to our concerns to this point. Their goal is to make the bridge safer and that is our clients' goal as well."

---

sdaugherty@capitalgazette.com

To see more of The Capital or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.hometownannapolis.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, The Capital, Annapolis, Md.

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