Less than four weeks before the 95-vehicle pileup on Interstate 77 in Fancy Gap, a North Carolina man filed a lawsuit aiming to get corrective measures taken to prevent more accidents on the dangerous stretch of highway.
Hillsville Attorney Jonathan McGrady represents Kevin Williams, 49, of Lincolnton, N.C., who suffered a severe, traumatic brain injury and serious orthopedic injuries as a result of his tractor-trailer being blown over by high winds on March 6, 2011 on the 2.8 mile marker of I-77 Northbound, just south of Fancy Gap. In Williams’ suit against the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), he claims VDOT failed to warn drivers ascending the mountain of high winds in excess of 55 miles per hour.
“This suit arose from a terrible wreck that happened on March 6, 2011, which we believe could have been prevented by VDOT. The Commonwealth of Virginia has consistently denied my client’s, Kevin Williams’s, claim, and suit had to be filed,” McGrady said. “Mr. Williams…will likely never work again. 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.”
Ironically, Williams’ suit was filed March 5, just 26 days before the 95-vehicle pileup on I-77 in Fancy Gap that claimed the lives of three people and injured nearly 30 more.
The suit claims that on March 6, 2011 at approximately 11 p.m., Williams was traveling northbound on I-77 in a tractor-trailer approaching Fancy Gap Mountain. Unbeknownst to Williams, the mountain was being pummeled by extremely high sustained winds and wind gusts. Williams was also unaware that approximately 45 minutes before he arrived on the mountain, another tractor-trailer headed northbound on I-77 had been turned over near mile marker 2.8 by the high winds buffeting the mountain.
“VDOT was aware of the high winds even before the other tractor trailer overturned because their weather monitoring stations on the mountain were registering winds in excess of 55 mph. VDOT was further aware of the overturned tractor trailer because emergency vehicles were already on scene before Plaintiff arrived at Mile Marker 2.8,” the lawsuit claims. “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. Moreover, VDOT, and specifically (former Salem VDOT District Administrator Richard) Caywood, took no steps to close the roadway despite being aware of wind conditions that made it impossible for a tractor trailer to safely travel up the Mountain on Interstate 77.”
When Williams arrived at mile marker 2.8, almost the same location the other tractor-trailer had turned over, Williams’ tractor-trailer was struck by high winds, causing his vehicle to overturn, leading him to incur grievous, permanent and life-altering injuries, the suit claims.
“We very much feel like the Commonwealth of Virginia and VDOT sacrificed safety in the name of commerce by keeping the interstate open, and as a result my client suffered injury and will never work again,” McGrady said. “Winds were registering in excess of 55 miles per hour. They have a VDOT weather station there hooked into Salem. A tractor trailer had already blown over and they had 42 minutes to shut it down. Officers working the scene that night couldn’t even open their door. They know at VDOT about it because they have the weather station, but there was no message on the message boards.”
McGrady said Williams has already incurred approximately $300,000 in medical bills. The lawsuit seeks $3.5 million in compensatory damages from the Commonwealth, VDOT, and Caywood because Williams will never be able to work again. The compensatory damages would provide him enough money to support himself due to his inability to work, to cover future medical costs, and for the pain and suffering he’s gone through. But McGrady said the case has more to do about VDOT taking corrective measures to prevent similar events from taking place in the future.
“The point is he wants them to take corrective measures. We feel like they had 45 minutes to take measures,” McGrady said. “It is a public safety issue. Let’s get measures in place to protect the public. There are times when that road needs to be closed down. VDOT knows it, and they need to take measures.”
The lawsuit claims the Commonwealth, VDOT, Caywood and an unknown employee were negligent by failing to close I-77 to tractor-trailer traffic despite actual knowledge of the wind conditions and knowledge that those wind conditions had already overturned one tractor trailer; failed to communicate and warn travelers of dangerous and impassable conditions on I-77; failed to have appropriate procedures in place to communicate timely information to travelers; and failed to have in place appropriate procedures, devices and personnel to shut down I-77. Specifically with regard to the Commonwealth, VDOT and Caywood, the lawsuit alleges they failed to provide appropriate training and oversight of their employees to insure that they could respond in a timely and appropriate manner to conditions on the Mountain; and were otherwise negligent and grossly negligent in their maintenance, operation and oversight of I-77 on Fancy Gap Mountain on March 6, 2011.
“I want to make clear that I think we have great local folks who work for VDOT. Where I believe the problem is, is with the top brass in Salem and Richmond where they place commerce over public safety by keeping that road open,” McGrady said. “It is not the local folks, it is the leadership at Salem and the top brass in Richmond. When they know the road is bad, they keep the road open. I think that is an issue that continues to wreak havoc.”
McGrady said he has tried to negotiate the case for the past two years, but his client’s claims have been denied. McGrady has requested a jury trial in Carroll County.
“Part of the reason my client wants me to do this is for VDOT to take corrective measures that may save lives in the future,” McGrady said. “He is one of those hard-working guys that would love to be working and driving a truck. He doesn’t want to be disabled.”