Have you ever been sitting at the stoplight in front of one of Florida’s many drawbridges and thought to yourself, what would happen if someone was unfortunate enough to be stuck on the rising bridge?
Just a few months ago, 79-year-old Carol Wright lost her life in an attempt to cross Royal Park Bridge in West Palm Beach. She dismounted from her bicycle and began walking it across the bridge. As she walked it across, the bridge started to rise. Wright then made a desperate attempt to hold on to the railing but fell 5 stories to her death onto the concrete structure below the bridge.
Artissua Paulk, the bridge operator on duty at the time, stated that she did not see Wright walking on the bridge. In the statement that she gave to the police, she stated the procedures for opening the bridge step by step which includes walking out to a balcony near her station. She is also supposed to be visually inspecting the walkway to ensure that no pedestrians or cars are in danger.
It is alleged that in later-discovered surveillance videos, no one can be seen on the bridge balcony anytime between 9 a.m. and the time of the incident, around 1 p.m. Text messages between the bridge tender and her supervisor were deleted, but those text messages were later recovered from her phone.
In those messages, the supervisor told Paulk to tell the investigators that she followed the protocol of walking out to the balcony. The supervisor also instructed Paulk to delete their text messages. Paulk was later arrested and is being charged with manslaughter. Both she and her supervisor have been dismissed from their positions.
This appears to be a clear case of negligence, perhaps even gross negligence. The company that hired this bridge tender may also be found vicariously liable pursuant to respondeat superior, which is the doctrine that holds the employer liable for the negligence of the employee. If it is ruled gross negligence, punitive damages may also be available.
In cases like these, it is important not only to compensate Wright’s family for the pain and suffering that they have endured but also to create newfound prudence and a sense of duty for Florida Drawbridges Inc. and their agents that act on their behalf. We depend on these people to ensure our safety. If indeed this is proven to be negligence, then such gross acts of negligence must not go unpunished or uncompensated or they may never be corrected or prevented. That’s one of the main functions of the tort system, to compensate for wrongs, but also to require the wrongdoer to pay.
This is not the first time that a case like this has happened in South Florida. Last October, there was a close call on a bridge in Lantana Florida. A car nearly plummeted into the water below but got caught in the gap between the moving and stationary parts of the bridge. In yet another similar incident 13 years ago, another resident of South Florida died on a drawbridge. The bridge went up while Mr. Desmond Nolan was about halfway across. In a last-ditch attempt to save himself, he too grabbed the railing and tried to avoid falling to the pavement below.
The lawsuit filed after that incident supposedly resulted in new safety measures such as a PA system, and a new policy requiring bridge tenders to walk out to the balcony to check for pedestrians and cars before allowing the drawbridge to be raised.
Unfortunately, these measures did not suffice to prevent this most recent tragic accident.