Toll lane operator, drivers among negligent in I-35 pileup, widow alleges in lawsuit

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The negligence of private companies that operate and maintain Fort Worth interstate toll lanes, the state transportation department and 10 drivers caused an expansive 133-vehicle collision in February, according to a lawsuit filed by the relatives of a man who died as he drove to work.

The lawsuit appears to be the first filed by a representative of the estate of a person who died in the Interstate 35 West collisions in which five other people were killed on lanes slick with freezing rain.

It was filed on Tuesday in Tarrant County District Court by Jane Watson, whose husband, Aaron Watson, was driving a Kia Sportage when he died early on Feb. 11 in express lanes. The couple’s two children are also plaintiffs.

NTE Mobility Partners, the private company that operates the TEXPress toll lanes, are defendants in the lawsuit, as are the Texas Department of Transportation, companies that owned involved tractor trailers, their drivers and people operating other types of vehicles.

Aaron Watson, who was 45 years old, was a managing partner for Jason Deli’s restaurants in Grand Prairie and Cedar Hill. He was driving from his home in Fort Worth to the Cedar Hill store when the collisions occurred.

The drivers committed negligent acts that “contributed to cause a catastrophic vehicular chain reaction,” according to the lawsuit.

The commercial trucking companies and drivers are accused in the lawsuit of failing to pay attention, maintain safe speeds and operate the vehicles in a safe manner. The companies did not properly train the drivers, it asserts.

The Texas Department of Transportation and other entities responsible for maintaining and operating the interstate failed to monitor and maintain it, failed to discover hazards or defects on the roadway, failed to de-ice and close the highway because of the conditions and failed to monitor the weather, according to the lawsuit.

The tollway operator, maintenance companies and TxDOT were aware of the icy conditions because North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners had posted a message on a video billboard three miles from the crash site warning of the dangerous road conditions after an accident occurred earlier that morning, according to the lawsuit.

North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners spokesman Robert Hinkle suggested that the company’s acts were appropriate.

“We respect the judicial process and therefore choose not to comment on the specifics of pending litigation, but, as we have said before, NTE3 has adhered to the highest standards in maintaining and operating its roadways,” Hinkle wrote in a statement. “We believe the claims these lawyers have made are unfounded.”

Hinkle wrote that the company extended its “sympathies to those involved in the tragic accident of February 11th.”

A Texas Department of Transportation spokesman said that the agency was “unable to comment on pending litigation.”

North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners applied a brine solution to the roadway 44 hours before the collisions, according to a National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report.

The company is responsible for the upkeep of toll and non-toll lanes at the site of the collisions in the south TEXPress lanes between Northside Drive and 28th Street. Company officials have said that they believed the anti-icing brine should have still been working two full days later when the pileup occurred.

“In the days before the crash, the area had experienced 36 consecutive hours of below freezing temperatures,” according to the report. “In anticipation of forecast freezing rain and sleet, NTE Mobility Partners Segments 3 (NTEMP S3) reported that they had pretreated the traffic lanes with an Ice Slicer NM brine solution. The solution was applied to the two southbound toll lanes in the vicinity of the crash on February 9 at 10:12 a.m.”

A final NTSB report is expected later this year or in early 2022.

Beyond Watson, the dead were Tiffany Gerred, 34, of Northlake; Christopher Vardy, 49, of Boyd; William Williams, 54, of Pahoa, Hawaii; Michael Wells, 47, of Justin; and Tamara Mendoza Querales, 46, according to The Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Sixty-five people were injured. About a week and a half after the collisions, three of them filed a lawsuit against various transportation companies and alleged vehicle operators drove unsafely and contributed to the pileup. The plaintiffs in that lawsuit sought $1 million in damages from five transportation companies: Fed Ex, GG’s Produce Transport, JB Hunt, Rich Logistics and GO2 Logistics. The lawsuit also lists the company drivers as defendants.

Attorneys J. Keith Hyde and D’Juana Parks of the Beaumont-based firm Provost Umphrey represent the Watsons.

“This tragedy was 100 percent preventable had all of the parties named in this lawsuit done their part,” Hyde wrote in a statement. “We should not be here today.”