Pennsylvania Turnpike Pileup Victims in Limbo Over Paperwork Gridlock

By Vince Lattanzio
|  Friday, Feb 28, 2014  |  Updated 8:15 PM EDT
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    Turnpike Pileup: What Went Wrong?

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    In the wake of the massive pileup on the Pennsylvania Turnpike two weeks ago, Steven Coney says his life has been turned upside-down.

    "This car pileup has been very stressful. I am depressed," he said. "It’s been hard financially."

    The 29-year-old was lucky to escape serious injury when his Mitsubishi was crushed under a tractor trailer in the mess, but his car was left unusable.

    Since then, he’s been renting a car, at his own expense, because he says a Pennsylvania State Police report he needs to provide to his insurance company isn’t done. Coney said police told him it might not be completed until April. This is an issue others involved in the pileup, like Coney, are likely facing as the investigation into the incident draws on.

    "The State Police have not started a police report yet. They have not said who is at fault yet. It’s just a big mess," Coney said. "I have to work overtime just to cover expenses. I am basically doing everything on my own with no help."

    It was around 8:25 a.m. on Feb. 14 when five tractor trailers and 10 cars collided in the eastbound lanes of the Turnpike about a mile from the Bensalem, Bucks County, Pa. interchange. Behind that first crash, a number of other collisions followed with some vehicles spinning out, catching fire, flipping over and being lodged under trucks. Area hospitals accepted 27 drivers who were hurt in the pileup, some seriously, but none suffered life-threatening injuries.

    The limited access highway was closed for more than eight hours and more than 75 vehicles were involved. Most had to be towed away, according to the Pa. State Police.

    Cpl. Richard Dean, public information officer for Troop T, which patrols the Pa. Turnpike, says troopers are working as fast as possible to complete their final report, but could not provide a timeline for when the investigation will be finished. He says investigators continue to get new information.

    "Every time we get something finished another person comes forward and says 'I was involved in it,'" he said. "It turned into a big snowball, no pun intended. It was not one two vehicles here. It’s not 10 vehicles. It’s more complicated."

    The Pa. Turnpike Commission is conducting an inquiry into the incident and the Pa. Senate Transportation Committee will also hold hearings on the pileup and the response by police and emergency personnel.

    Attorney Robert Braker, head of the motor vehicle department at Philadelphia law firm Satlz, Mongeluzzi, Barrett & Bendesky, says trying to determine who is at fault in the crash is an uphill battle as some cars were smashed into groups of tangled metal along the roadway.

    "It’s going to be very complicated and it almost seems impossible to say who was stopped and who was pushed into somebody else," he said. "A lot of times you could [more easily] make the argument whether you’re stopped or moving. But in this you’re still going to have damage from being hit from behind or hit from the front, so it’s going to be very difficult to tell…"

    Braker has tried and overseen thousands of cases, although no massive pileups, which he calls rare. He said with major accidents like the pileup, police typically call an accident reconstructionist to the scene to try and determine how the crash happened and who is at fault.

    "Police officers who are not certified in accident reconstruction are not permitted to testify about their opinions about an accident in a courtroom," he said.

    However, Dean says State Police did not dispatch one of their three accident reconstruction investigators to the scene, because the crash, although high-profile, did not match their criteria.

    "It has to meet the criteria of serious injury or a death and this doesn’t meet that," he said.

    Once police do finish their report, Braker says motorists will have a tough time suing for damages.

    "You hope that the police did a great job sorting it all out, but it is going to be a challenge when there’s upwards of 50 cars that in theory you could point the finger at," he said. "The injured folks will be hoping that you’ll be able to prove that the fault is by a commercial vehicle that would be able to have the bigger policy."

    Questions have been raised as to whether the Turnpike was properly plowed and salted prior to the accident. However, Braker says suing the state for that issue is out of the picture.

    "Failing to salt a roadway is not a recognizable exception to government immunity so an injured person wouldn’t be able to sue…for failing to salt a public road," he said.

    For Coney, however, the here and now is more of an issue for him as he tries to get his life back on track.

    "I just want a car so that I can get back and forth to work," Coney said.


    Contact Vince Lattanzio at 610.668.5532, vince.lattanzio@nbcuni.com or follow @VinceLattanzio on Twitter.

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