Widow's lawsuit over fatal Chesapeake Bay plunge to be heard

NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — A trial involving a widow’s lawsuit filed over the death of her husband who was killed when his tractor-trailer plunged over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel is scheduled to begin on Tuesday in a Virginia court.

The Virginian-Pilot reported in January that the lawsuit filed by Billie Jo Chen against the CBBT said the bridge-tunnel’s own wind and gauge policy should have prohibited Joseph Chen from crossing the bridge in 2017. Billie Jo Chen is suing for $6 million.

CBBT is claiming sovereign immunity, which usually protects governmental entities from negligence lawsuits. A CBBT police investigation concluded Joseph Chen was responsible for the accident.

Joseph Chen, 47, was an experienced driver delivering seafood for a company based near Greenville, North Carolina. By the time his rig reached northern entrance, a powerful storm blew into the mouth of the bay. Such conditions activate the CBBT’s six-level system of traffic restrictions, which impact certain types of vehicles as wind speed increases. Tractor-trailers which are empty are stopped from crossing if gauges along the 17.6-mile (28.3-kilometer) span are detecting gusts higher than 46 mph.

Douglas Desjardins, the attorney representing Chen’s widow, says CBBT logs indicate a 47-mph gust hit just as Joseph Chen threaded the toll plaza and entered the span. At 12:21 pm, when his front tires struck the curb and went through the guard rail, a CBBT gauge clocked a 50-mph blast.

Shortly after the accident, a published story said 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 incident, and they all made it across except him.”

The trial, which takes place in Northampton County Circuit Court, is expected to last three or four days. Attorneys representing Chen say they’d originally hoped to have a jury hear the case but opted for a bench trial in the face of pandemic-related backlogs. A verdict isn’t expected for several weeks.