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Athens contractor sued over U.S. 72 fatalities

By Holly Hollman · 340-2445

The estates of three families are suing an Athens contractor over fatalities that occurred on the western stretch of U.S. 72 in Limestone County.

The lawsuits, filed between 2005-06 in Limestone County Circuit Court, all name Burgreen Contracting as a defendant because the Alabama Department of Transportation contracted Burgreen to resurface, rebuild or construct a portion of the road where the accidents occurred.

Keenum Contracting bought out Burgreen, but the lawsuits still are against Burgreen’s owner, Ricky Burgreen.

Birmingham attorney Mike Beard, whose firm is handling two of the lawsuits, said the company should have known this area of U.S. 72 was holding water and contributing to vehicles hydroplaning.

“Anybody who lived in that area knew it was a problem because of the number of accidents,” Beard said. “The state is immune from suit, and contractors usually say they only built it the way the state told them to, but we contend if the contractor knew there were flaws they should have corrected that.”

Burgreen’s attorney, Chip Rivers of Birmingham, said, “At this point, we are still in the discovery phase and have no comment.”

According to court records, Burgreen’s contention is that the company is not responsible because there was driver negligence and that an act of God contributed to the wrecks.

Suing are the estates of Jenita Smith, Athens State professor; Nicole Cardwell and Ciara May, an Athens mother and her 5-year-old daughter; and Rita Mason and Peggy Williams, two Madison County residents.

According to court records, Smith, Cardwell and Ciara died Dec. 9, 2004, near Shaw Road when Smith hydroplaned and struck Cardwell’s vehicle.

Beard is the attorney for Cardwell’s estate, but he has filed a joint motion with the attorney representing the Smith’s estate to consolidate the cases. A hearing on that motion is set for March 29.

Beard’s firm also is representing the estates of Mason and Williams. The women died May 1, 2004, after their sport utility vehicle collided with a car and burst into flames. According to court records, Williams hydroplaned and struck the oncoming car. Mason was her passenger. Beard said the SUV rolled over and caught fire.

‘Burned alive’

“A neighbor who is a witness saw them in the vehicle,” Beard said. “They were burned alive.”

Their estates also are suing General Motors and The Muffler Center in Huntsville, which had replaced the muffler system on the SUV prior to the wreck. The suit alleges the 1994 Chevrolet Suburban’s fuel system failed, resulting in a fuel-fed fire.

Beard said his firm is seeking statistics from DOT about the number of wrecks on that stretch.

Sen. Tom Butler, D-Madison, had the Department of Public Safety conduct a fatality study on the 15-mile stretch from Athens’ western city limits to the county line. That study showed that from 1994 to 2003, the stretch had 20 wrecks that resulted in 24 deaths.

Based on Daily archives, that number has risen to at least 30 fatalities to date.

Since the deaths of Cardwell, Ciara and Smith, the state has lowered the speed limit from 65 mph to 60 mph, except when wet, when the speed limit is 45 mph.

Butler and 1,700 citizens who signed a petition in 2005 still want the state to add a turn lane on that stretch.

The state has been working on the design for that lane but has not started construction.

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