What one of Evelyn “Joy” Menard’s attorneys described as a “preventable freak accident” on Interstate 12 at the Essen Lane overpass could cost the state more than $1.6 million and will likely mean a lifetime of pain, suffering and medical expenses for the woman.
An East Baton Rouge Parish jury decided on the damage award for the U.S. Army veteran and single mother on Feb. 9 following a six-day trial.
The 12-person jury found the state Department of Transportation and Development 100 percent at fault for the March 27, 2004, accident involving an out-of-service wire that destroyed Menard’s 2001 Mitsubishi Galant and ultimately left her totally disabled.
“It was an inevitability. It was going to happen to someone. It was just a matter of who,” one of Menard’s attorneys, Billy Thies, of Beall & Thies, said Thursday. “Unfortunately, it happened to Evelyn Menard.”
DOTD spokesman Rodney Mallett declined comment, saying, “Until a decision on whether to appeal or not is made, it is ongoing litigation.”
Thies said he expects a lengthy appeal process but also expects the jury verdict to be upheld.
The accident actually had its origins in 1967, Russell Beall said, when the state installed a traffic signal to govern the entrance to I-12 West from the northbound lanes of Essen Lane.
The traffic signal was connected and synchronized with the signal governing traffic at Essen and its I-12 East off-ramp, he said. The two signals were connected by suspending a wire from the north side of I-12 across all lanes of traffic to a point on the south side of I-12.
The state took the traffic signal that it installed in 1967 out of service in 1976, Thies said, but left the wire suspended above I-12 at the Essen overpass.
State regulations mandate the wire was to have a vertical clearance of no less than 20 feet. The vertical clearance of the Essen Lane overpass is 16.1 feet, he said.
Menard, who was a paralegal in Baton Rouge, was traveling westbound on I-12 to work on a Saturday morning when an 18-wheeler in front of her came in contact with the wire that had sagged below 16.1 feet and pulled it down, Thies said. Menard’s car became entangled with the wire, which flailed about, repeatedly striking the car and causing it to be violently pulled sideways.
The truck, which Menard indicated was carrying industrial equipment, did not stop, apparently unaware that the wire had been struck, Thies said. The truck driver was never located.
“The bridge was not struck, which means this wire was below 16.1 feet,” Thies said.
Industry standards required that an out-of-service wire be inspected yearly to ensure it maintained the appropriate vertical clearance, he said, but the state acknowledged having no records of inspecting the wire, the pole or the hardware.
Thies contends it would have taken the transportation department all of five minutes to remove the wire after it was taken out of service.
“I would call it a preventable freak accident. Preventable in five minutes,” he said.
After denying it for 11 years, Thies said, the state finally admitted on the last day of trial that it owned the wire.
“They always knew it was their wire,” he alleged. “They never inspected the wire.”
Menard has had 11 years of medical treatment, including multiple surgeries. One of the surgeries, Thies said, involved fusing three vertebrae in her lower back, but the procedure failed. The installation of a spine stimulator gave her some relief, he said.