NORTHAMPTON COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) — The wife of a man who died from hypothermia after his tractor-trailer went off the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel has filed a lawsuit alleging negligence.
The lawsuit was filed against the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel District, which operates the CBBT, according to documents.
The lawsuit was filed Jan. 11, 2019 and demands a $6 million judgement. A four-day jury trial is scheduled for July 14-17, 2020.
According to an amended complaint filed in May 2019, Billie Jo Chen, the wife and administrator of Joseph Chen’s estate, says the CBBT District was negligent when it reduced a Level 4 wind restriction down to a Level 1 restriction around noon Feb. 9, 2017.
It also alleges negligence for several other reasons, including responders not using rescue tools for vehicles that drive off the bridge-tunnel.
Billie Jo Chen’s husband’s truck was blown off the edge of the CBBT and he spent about half an hour waiting for rescue. He died from hypothermia shortly after he was rescued, the complaint states.
Joseph Chen, 47, was operating a tractor-trailer for Evans Seafood Company on Feb. 9, 2017 and was carrying only pallets, as he was southbound on his return trip back to North Carolina.
He approached the CBBT while the area was under a gale warning.
The CBBT District was under Level 4 wind restrictions starting around 7:30 a.m. that day due to wind speeds over 60 mph.
According to the lawsuit complaint, tractor-trailers are not allowed to cross the CBBT during Level 4 restrictions. Joseph Chen was forced to stop at the north toll plaza of the CBBT.
Between 11 a.m. and noon, the CBBT recorded winds that “persisted” above 47 mph with gusts over 50 mph, documents state.
The restriction was reduced to Level 1 “on or around” 12:01 p.m., meaning Joseph Chen could begin driving southbound on the bridge-tunnel. He started crossing around 12:15 p.m.
Around 12:21 p.m. Joseph Chen’s tractor-trailer was blown by a gust into the guardrail, then through the barrier into the Chesapeake Bay.
The complaint says the high wind gusts continued past noon, despite the Level 1 restriction.
He was able to escape the trailer and then awaited rescue.
The water temperature was around 45 degrees Fahrenheit at the time, documents say.
While he waited, the wind continued to blow the trailer east.
While the CBBT has tools such as rope, throw rings and more to help rescue operations, the lawsuit alleges none were used to aid Joseph Chen.
Conditions prevented a response by boat, so a U.S. Navy helicopter was called to assist.
Joseph Chen was found by the helicopter around 12:58 p.m. and was rescued around 1:01 p.m.
He was airlifted to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital.
He was pronounced dead around 1:14 p.m. from hypothermia, according to the complaint.