Big Dig lawsuit settled for $9m

Trooper died after hitting handrails; Official had been told of possible risks

State Trooper Vincent Cila was one of seven motorists and passengers killed when they struck the handrails lining the Big Dig tunnel system between 2005 and 2008. State Trooper Vincent Cila was one of seven motorists and passengers killed when they struck the handrails lining the Big Dig tunnel system between 2005 and 2008. (File/ The Boston Globe)
By Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / November 23, 2010

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The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and several other defendants have agreed to pay $9 million to the family of a state trooper who died when his motorcycle slammed into Big Dig handrails, whose design has been called a safety hazard and a factor in the deaths of six other motorists, according to court records.

Newly obtained documents also show that the US Department of Transportation warned the director of the Big Dig project about the safety of the railings in 1992, but the director responded that the rails were safe.

State Trooper Vincent Cila was one of seven motorists and passengers killed when they struck the handrails lining the Big Dig tunnel system between 2005 and 2008. Most of the seven victims were dismembered in the accidents; one other person lost an arm and survived.

The defendants “simply did not consider the safety of the motoring public, who would come into contact with these railings,’’ said attorney Annette Gonthier-Kiely of Salem, who represented Cila. “Mrs. Cila hopes they remove or redesign the handrails so other families will be spared the loss of loved ones.’’

The settlement filed last week in Suffolk Superior Court does not address the safety concerns raised by the lawsuit.

At issue are handrails that line pedestrian walkways inside the tunnels. The rails are a little bit more than 3 feet off the ground, roughly the height of a motorcycle seat or car window. The railings are intended to keep workers along the walkways from falling into traffic.

State officials in the past have insisted that the design of the handrails in the tunnels is safe and complies with federal and safety standards. Safety is the first concern of the state Transportation Department, officials have said.

Yesterday, a department spokesman expressed regret for the death.

“This was a tragic accident and we understand the terrible loss suffered by Trooper Cila’s family and by his fellow Massachusetts State Police officers,’’ said Adam Hurtubise of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, which is responsible for the tunnels. “Because the insurer, AIG, is responsible for all matters pertaining to the litigation and any settlement reached, we must refer you to AIG for further comment.’’

AIG had no comment.

No details about the settlement, other than the amount, were released, and the records were sealed because they involved payments to minors. The other seven defendants include major Big Dig contractors, such as Bechtel Corp., as well as small construction companies.

The newly obtained documents filed this summer in the lawsuit show that federal officials warned that the rails might be dangerous and should be crash-tested. However, the recommendation was not accepted.

Donald E. Hammer, division administrator of the US Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration, wrote that the handrails should be tested to make sure they met standards for safety and strength.

“We have reservations regarding safety considerations of these designs,’’ wrote Hammer. “Our concern is that the ornamental railing may be dislodged or be poorly maintained, and, thus be a potential piercing object.’’

The reply from Peter M. Zuk, project director of the Mass. Highway Department’s Central Artery/Tunnel project, was dismissive. “It is not the intent that [the handrails] participate in vehicle collisions,’’ he said, adding they were only for pedestrian use, and were placed so they would not be struck by vehicles.

“As such, we fail to see the wisdom or the need to expend money to crash test this rail,’’ added Zuk, who could not be reached for comment.

The lawsuit filed by Cila’s family focused on the design of the railings, asserting that their faulty design led to his death.

The railings have rectangular posts, about three-quarters of an inch wide. The suit argued that the squared-off edges of the posts acted like the cutting blades in a paper cutter, slicing off Cila’s left arm at the shoulder. His neck was also broken. Cila, 45, was on a routine job when he lost control of his Harley Davidson motorcycle and struck the handrails on July 22, 2005, while going about 35 miles an hour.

Cila’s widow argued that her husband’s death might have been avoided if the Big Dig had used a common rail design with rounded, pipe-like vertical posts and rounded horizontal runners.

The Globe reported on the handrails and the lawsuit in February. At the time, the state insisted the railings were safe.

As part of its article, the Globe contacted three roadside barrier and accident reconstruction professionals who said the railings were flawed. The railings’ horizontal runners were too widely spaced, so that a driver whose vehicle struck the barrier could get entangled and then slammed into a horizontal post, they said. And the railings should have been placed higher, so it was less likely that motorcyclists or car passengers ejected in a collision could be snagged by the railings.

In addition to Cila, six other people were killed between 2005 and 2008. Four were on motorcycles and three deaths involved people in vehicles.

State Police reports reviewed by the Globe found that human error or recklessness, such as speed, contributed to several of the crashes. In the three deaths involving cars, none of the people killed were wearing seat belts. All three were partly thrust out of the window, became ensnared in the handrails, and were torn from the vehicles.

Public safety personnel who responded to the accidents dubbed the handrails the “ginsu guardrails,’’ after the TV ads for sharp knives.

Sam Maurer of Kansas, whose 19-year-old son, Christopher, was killed after striking a handrail in a motorcycle accident in 2008, said in an e-mail yesterday, “I am interested in getting the handrails fixed and my effort toward that end would be kicked into high gear if the handrails were not repaired in a timely manner.’’

Maurer paid graduate engineering students this year to come up with alternative designs for the handrails.

Besides the Mass. Pike and Bechtel, the other defendants are: Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas Inc., Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, Gannett Fleming Inc., Modern Continental Construction Co., Tuttle Aluminum & Bronze, and Saugus Construction Corp. The Massachusetts Turnpike Authority was merged out of existence a year ago into the Department of Transportation.

“The death of Trooper Cila was a tragedy and we are deeply sympathetic for the Cila family’s loss,’’ said William J. Dailey Jr., who represented Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff. “All involved believe that settlement of this litigation was the best course.’’

Matt Carroll can be reached at