Dangerous road costly for city-parish — and accident victim

Crash left man unable to walk

A poorly maintained roadway in Central that caused a man in 2005 to crash his car has cost the city-parish $2.5 million in legal damages — one of the largest legal settlements in recent memory.

But for Micheal Godfrey, who was 19 at the time of his crash, it cost him his ability to walk.

The East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council recently approved the settlement, which will be paid out in quarterly installments over the next five years, bringing to an end a lawsuit that stretched on for nine years.

To date, Godfrey has accumulated about $1 million in medical bills.

Godfrey was driving north on Sullivan Road in December 2005 when his tires drifted off the roadway, and the lack of a road shoulder caused him to lose control of the vehicle, strike an embankment and then flip the vehicle into oncoming traffic where it collided with another vehicle driving in the opposite direction.

Godfrey suffered a cervical fracture and is permanently paralyzed from his chest down. A devout Christian, Godfrey now counsels people at his church, according to his attorney, Rick Caballero.

“This has changed his life completely; he could have gone on to play college baseball, or he could have gone on to have a different career,” Caballero said. “But he’s a very fine young man who has taken lemons and made lemonade.”

The bigger issue, Caballero said, is that the city-parish has several dangerous roads that aren’t properly maintained and pose a danger to the driving public.

“That road is a death trap,” he said. “Numerous people have been injured, and it’s very frustrating to see that happen over and over again.”

According to legal documents filed in the case, at least eight crashes have been documented on Sullivan Road — a narrow two-lane road running from Greenwell Springs to Hooper Road. It is so dangerous, in fact, that is has become known as “homicide alley,” the court filings say.

In 2006, a 17-year-old and a 28-year-old were killed in a wreck on Sullivan Road, and another driver involved in the same wreck suffered severe injuries and had a leg amputated. The city-parish previously paid out another one of its largest settlements — to the tune of $5 million — to the families of two teens killed in a 1993 crash in the same area.

Nearly a decade after Godfrey’s accident, only a fraction of planned improvements to Sullivan Road have been completed.

Bryan Harmon, interim director of the Department of Public Works, said about 40 percent of the improvements have been done. He said most of the old, unsafe portions of Sullivan Road have been torn out by now, with traffic being shifted to two north-bound lanes.

Sullivan Road is undergoing other major improvements from where it ties into the Central Thruway near Lovett Road to just north of Wax Road. The project ultimately will transform the old narrow two-lane road, which didn’t have shoulders, to a four-lane road with a raised median.

Harmon said the upgraded road will meet current industry safety standards with wider lanes, dedicated turning lanes and 8-foot shoulders in the non-curbed areas of the road.

The project is included in the city-parish’s Green Light Plan, a voter-approved, half-cent sales tax funded road improvements program. The total project will cost about $15 million and is expected to be finished by spring 2015.

Godfrey’s lawsuit was initially dismissed by a district court judge, but the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the lower court’s decision in 2011. The courts ultimately assigned 80 percent of the fault for the wreck to the city- parish, with Godfrey 20 percent responsible.

Representatives from the Parish Attorney’s Office did not respond to requests for comment on the settlement.

Metro Councilman Scott Wilson, whose district encompasses the city of Central, said the road has been a magnet for accidents over the years.

“It’s a very dangerous road; there’s been a lot of deaths on that road, unfortunately,” he said.

But Wilson said the opening of the Central Thruway last year has taken significant pressure off of Sullivan Road, which he hopes will reduce the number of wrecks in the area.

Wilson said the settlement in the Godfrey case was the largest he can remember the Metro Council approving since the six years he’s been in office.

“From a financial standpoint, I think the city-parish could have come out a lot worse in that situation,” he said.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/cityhallbuzz.