Nine years after being severely wounded in the horrific Avon Mountain wreck, Michael Cummings is still fighting to hold the state Department of Transportation responsible. A dump truck went out of control down the 500-foot hill on Route 44 in Avon in 2005 after its faulty brakes failed, causing a fiery, 20-vehicle accident at the bottom that killed four people and injured 19.
On Wednesday at the state Supreme Court, Cummings watched as his lawyer argued that a jury should be allowed to decide whether the DOT should be held accountable. Cummings claims state officials knew for years that the road was dangerous but didn’t take adequate safety precautions such as adding a runaway truck ramp near the bottom of the hill until after the crash.
“It means justice for us,” Cummings said. “I grew up in Connecticut … and there’s always been reports of Avon Mountain being unsafe.”
Cummings, 44, of New Hartford, suffered multiple broken bones, a punctured lung, knocked-out teeth and post-traumatic stress from the crash. He and Ellen Stotler of Avon, whose husband died in the crash, have identical lawsuits against the DOT seeking damages for alleged negligence by state officials.
DOT officials say the road wasn’t defective and the lawsuits should be dismissed because of government immunity.
A Superior Court trial judge refused to dismiss the two lawsuits at the DOT’s request and the agency appealed to the state Appellate Court, which agreed with the DOT and ordered the lawsuits dismissed last year.
Cummings and Stotler then appealed to the Supreme Court, which is expected to take months to issue a ruling.
While Connecticut law shields state government from many lawsuits under sovereign immunity, it specifically allows people to sue the state over design defects in roads.
“This roadway was perpetually dangerous,” Stotler’s attorney, Joel Faxon, told the Supreme Court. “There were many brake failure-type accidents that preceded this crash.”
Faxon also said state officials knew for years that roads as steep as Avon Mountain should have runaway truck ramps, under recommendations in place since at least 1984 by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.
The state did install a runaway truck ramp in 2008, which was among a series of improvements made after the fatal accident.
Ronald Williams Jr., a lawyer representing the DOT, told the Supreme Court the road wasn’t defective. He also said there were signs at the time warning drivers of the steep, 10 percent grade.
Williams said brake failure on trucks going down Avon Mountain was a rare problem. He said that according to the plaintiffs’ own experts, there were only five reported accidents involving truck brake failure between 1995 and 2005, when an estimated 2 million trucks traveled the road.
The driver of the dump truck that caused the 2005 wreck was among those killed. The truck was owned by a company run by David Wilcox of Windsor, who was sentenced to six years in prison for manslaughter, assault and insurance fraud. Authorities said Wilcox knew the truck had bad brakes and tried, after the crash, to reinstate insurance on his company’s trucks.