- Associated Press - Saturday, January 25, 2020

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) - The widow of a North Carolina truck driver who died when his rig plunged off Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel in 2017 is suing for $6 million.

The lawsuit filed by Billie Jo Chen against the CBBT says the bridge-tunnel’s own wind and gauge policy should have prohibited Joseph Chen from crossing the bridge, The Virginian-Pilot reported.

CBBT policy says empty trailers like the one Chen was hauling are not allowed to cross if gusts higher than 46 mph are being detected by gauges stationed along the 17.6-mile span.

But according to readouts of a gauge at the CBBT’s Island 4 - the nearest one to where Chen went over the side - gusts up to 50 mph were clocked while he attempted his crossing on Feb. 9, 2017.

The readouts, collected minute-by-minute, are included in the lawsuit.

Attorneys with Pender & Coward, the Virginia Beach firm representing the CBBT, did not respond to interview requests from The Virginian-Pilot.

Filings in Northampton County Circuit Court show the CBBT is claiming sovereign immunity, which typically protects governmental entities from negligence lawsuits.

Douglas Desjardins, the Washington, D.C-based attorney representing Chen’s widow, said his firm searched for comparable cases against the CBBT and found none, even though at least 16 vehicles have gone into the water since the span opened in 1964. Most of those were tractor-trailers.

He said sovereign immunity challenges have hope “if an entity has established policies and you can prove that it fell short of its own standards.”

In a story published shortly after Chen’s accident, CBBT Police Chief Edward Spencer said, “Any time there’s a loss of life, it’s a terrible tragedy. But there were 80 to 86 trucks out there on the facility at the time of the incident, and they all made it across except him.”

A CBBT police investigation concluded Chen was responsible for the accident. Several witnesses said he was going too fast for conditions and lost control when he tried to pass another semi.

But Desjardins spoke to another witness who said Chen’s trailer was picked up by the wind “like a sail” right before his rig hurtled through the guard rail. The “black box” from his sunken cab was too damaged to yield any information about speed or braking.

The 47-year-old Chen was an experienced driver delivering seafood for Evans Transport, which is based near his home in Greenville, North Carolina. The medical examiner said he succumbed to hypothermia and drowned in the 45-degree water.

The lawsuit is expected to go to trial in July.

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