Suit faults design of bridge

The lack of a barrier led to a driver's injuries, the suit says.

Published June 27, 2007

Calling Clearwater's Memorial Causeway Bridge unsafe, a man severely injured on the city's signature bridge last year has sued its designers and builders.

The suit, filed June 20 in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, contends that the lack of a barrier separating the east- and westbound lanes contributed to the multiple injuries of Frank Urino, 54, who was hurt after a car crossed the bridge's low median and hit his vehicle in April 2006.

A teenager, who was later charged with drunken driving, jetted her car over the 6-inch-tall concrete median and sent both of them to the hospital.

Urino's wife, Natalie, also a plaintiff in the suit, says her husband could still lose his right foot and still needs medical attention.

"He has to cut open shoes to get his foot in, " said Mrs. Urino, 44, a registered nurse. "He's had a really rough time ... and he's been told by his surgeon that he may get an infection that they can't cure."

The $64.9-million bridge, a half-mile stretch from downtown to the causeway, opened in August 2005. It replaced a bridge that had a barrier.

The lawsuit names PCL Civil Constructors Inc. of Canada and Earth Tech Consulting Inc, of California, which helped design and construct the new bridge. The suit says the companies, which both have Florida offices, "failed to follow sound engineering principles" and didn't prepare for "all reasonable dangers."

"(The defendants) should have foreseen and provided appropriate safety measures for ... the possibility that automobiles might lose control and cross the median, " local attorneys Leonard Vincenti and David Ellis wrote in the complaint.

In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times, Ellis said the median "does absolutely nothing" to protect oncoming traffic.

The lawsuit asks for more than $15, 000, a formality needed to file in circuit court. Ellis said he will seek more from the designers and also plans to sue the Florida Department of Transportation, which hired the vendors and owns the bridge.

Officials with PCL did not return calls seeking comment. Earth Tech declined comment.

Since the bridge opened, eight motorists have crossed the median and crashed. One died. Other motorists have apparently hit the median often, as the white concrete curb is riddled with tire marks.

Though some drivers and local leaders have long-complained that the bridge is poorly designed, state transportation officials say it's fine, and the accidents are caused by careless or reckless driving.

They also say the bridge's 45 mph speed limit negates the need for a barrier.

"Someone who is not driving responsibly - I can't design a facility that's safe enough, " said Dwayne Kile, the DOT engineer who oversees designs for Tampa Bay region projects.

Kile said officials are looking into whether to install more "awareness-type improvements, " like a flashing beacon.

After a motorcyclist died after losing control and being thrown across the median, local leaders, including the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce, called for safety improvements on the bridge. The DOT responded in February by installing a series of reflectors along the median.

Kile said he wouldn't rule out putting in a barrier. "But anyone losing control is going to collide into it and there's still potential for ... a fatality. It's just directed back into traffic. It's kind of like picking your poison."

Urino was traveling eastbound in a 2000 Celica at about 9:20 a.m. April 25, 2006, when a westbound Toyota Camry driven by Hilary Joelle Brenner crossed the median and hit Urino's car.

Urino, who sells hydrotherapy massage beds, spent the next four months in and out of hospitals recovering from a broken wrist and shattered leg. He went back to work in October 2006.

His wife said insurance has paid much of the $300, 000-plus in medical costs, but that the couple has struggled while he missed work.

Brenner is scheduled to appear in court Thursday on criminal charges stemming from the wreck.