Suits filed in road deaths

Claims state La. 935 lacked guardrails

Advocate file photo by ADAM LAU -- Louisiana State Trooper Joseph Barton kneels in prayer on Feb. 22, 2012, alongside Black Bayou in St. Amant  where a car left Stringer Bridge Road and plunged into Black Bayou the previous evening, killing two children. The driver and two other children survived.
Advocate file photo by ADAM LAU -- Louisiana State Trooper Joseph Barton kneels in prayer on Feb. 22, 2012, alongside Black Bayou in St. Amant where a car left Stringer Bridge Road and plunged into Black Bayou the previous evening, killing two children. The driver and two other children survived.

Four lawsuits have been filed against the state and Ascension Parish government over the fatal February 2012 crash in which two young girls died after their mother lost control of her car on Stringer Bridge Road and drove into Black Bayou.

The driver’s two children, Faith Castilaw, 9, and Patience Lobell, 7, did not escape the submerged car and died, while two others, Alexis Welch, then 6, and Kamryn Jara, then 9, escaped with the driver, Raelyn Encalade, authorities have said.

Jara was pulled free of the murky bayou in St. Amant after the nighttime crash in a dramatic rescue by a bystander, authorities said at the time.

The suits name the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development and Ascension Parish government as defendants, citing their alleged negligence in maintenance of Stringer Bridge Road, a state highway also known as La. 935.

Encalade, 29, of St. Amant, is named as a defendant in two of the suits: one filed on behalf of Welch, who is Encalade’s sister , and Castilaw, who is her daughter.

Among the allegations leveled against the agencies in all four suits is that the two-lane road, which has a section that runs parallel to Black Bayou with little shoulder, lacks guardrails and that the agencies failed to prevent a hazardous condition on the road.

In addition to the claims against DOTD and Ascension, the two suits filed for Welch and Castilaw allege Encalade was negligent in the operation of her 2003 Mercury Sable. Those suits claim Encalade was driving northbound on La. 935 and veered off the road into the bayou across the southbound lane.

In April 2012, District Attorney Ricky Babin said there was evidence of illegal drug use by Encalade after blood tests showed she had a combination of prescription drugs in her system. Criminal charges have not been brought against her.

“Right now, the evidence is insufficient to bring charges, but the investigation is not closed,” Babin said in an interview last week.

He said his office has six years to file a charge.

Jeff Diez, an attorney for parish government, said Encalade has been already dismissed from the two suits naming her after a settlement was reached, but court records on Friday did not yet indicate that.

The attorney for Encalade’s insurer, Rachel Roe, did not return a message for comment Friday afternoon.

All four suits were filed in the 23rd Judicial District Court between Sept. 14 and Feb. 21 and seek damages. The district encompasses Ascension, Assumption and St. James parishes. The four suits are before three judges in the district.

Each of the suits has been filed by the children’s parents. Those involving Castilaw and Lobell are filed by the girls’ fathers, Paul Castilaw and Laurent Lobell.

In the days after the Feb. 21, 2012, crash, residents petitioned DOTD to add guardrails to the stretch of highway where the crash happen, claiming similar crashes had occurred in the past.

The suits allege DOTD and Ascension Parish knew or should have known the stretch of La. 935 was unsafe and hazardous.

DOTD has filed a response to only one of the suits so far, Welch’s, and in it the agency disputes the allegations. As Ascension Parish does in its defense, DOTD also claims Encalade was negligent in operating the car, including claims she was driving while intoxicated and was speeding.

In early February, DOTD officials said they had not added guardrails to La. 935 because they are not considered feasible in the short term. The highway agency did add more signs last year in the weeks after the crash.

The stretch of highway is also under a long-term review in which guardrails, highway realignment and other options are being considered.

A final report is expected this summer, DOTD officials have said. A striping project also is slated for start this summer.

In Ascension’s responses, the parish government also disputes it maintains La. 935. Diez said the parish is preparing papers to show La. 935 is not a parish road.

DOTD officials referred calls for comment to the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office. Amanda Papillion Larkins, director of communications for the Attorney General’s Office, said the office does not comment on pending litigation.

Plaintiffs attorneys Scott Emonet and C. James Rothkamm Jr., who each filed two of the suits, could not be reached for comment by Friday.