Suit settled in death of woman at garage

bortiz@herald-leader.comJuly 11, 2008 

The family of a pregnant Lexington woman who was fatally crushed by a large concrete panel knocked loose from a downtown parking garage has settled its lawsuit against the garage's owners.

Terms of the settlement, reached Wednesday night, are confidential, said the family's attorney, Michael Troutman.

“The issues were resolved,” Troutman said Thursday. “That is all I can tell you.”

Stephanie Hufnagel, 22, was walking to work at Chase Bank in May 2006 when a pickup hit and dislodged a 5,000-pound concrete panel wall at the Chase Bank parking garage.

The panel killed Hufnagel and her unborn child, Sydney. Hufnagel was eight months pregnant.

The pickup driver, Devona Jones, was also sued by Hufnagel's family. Those claims have been settled.

The other defendants were TIC Properties, which manages the parking garage; Main Street EH LLC, one of 32 investors that jointly own the parking structure; and other investors. Claims against Central Parking System of Kentucky Inc., which runs the garage, were dismissed earlier.

Plaintiffs in the case were Brian Hufnagel and Cynthia Cunningham, Stephanie Hufnagel's husband and mother. Brian Hufnagel was acting individually, as a representative of the estate of daughter Sydney Hufnagel, and as guardian of daughter Raigann Hufnagel. Cunningham was the representative of her daughter's estate.

The lawsuit had accused the garage owners of poor maintenance and failing to inspect the garage.

But attorneys for the owners countered that Jones drove so fast that even a perfectly good concrete panel would have been jarred loose. According to the family's own expert witness, Jones had to be driving at least 7 to 8 miles an hour. (Police at the scene had estimated the speed was less than 5 mph.)

An expert for the owners thinks Jones was driving 10 mph. But even driving at 7 to 8 miles an hour would have exerted 16,000 pounds of force on the wall, the owners argued.

Current Kentucky building code requires garage walls to be able to withstand 6,000 pounds of force. The building is required to comply only with less stringent codes that were in effect when it was constructed in 1973.

“Despite having over two years since the accident, Plaintiffs have not been able to produce even a scintilla of evidence that the panel in question and its connections were deteriorated, or that any alleged deterioration caused this accident,” garage lawyer William H. Partin Jr. wrote in a court brief.

Attorneys for Hufnagel's family countered in court documents that the remains of the panel had been destroyed, robbing them of key evidence. They called the destruction “outrageous” and said the owners were trying to cover up the conditions of the garage.

The family also accused the garage owners of not being forthcoming to city officials about deterioration in the garage after the accident.

Partin and Troutman declined Thursday to discuss the issues in the lawsuit.

At least a year before the accident, about half of the panels in the garage had signs of deterioration, the family argued. Had the owners consulted an engineer, they might have retrofitted all the panels and prevented the accident, it said.

But in a court brief, the owners said the deterioration was actually in the connections to the garage's vertical columns, and most of that wear was minor. The deterioration in other parts of the garage had nothing to do with the accident, they argued.

Three months after the accident, the city partially condemned the garage after a structural engineer found that a metal plate holding a concrete panel in place had pulled away from a garage column. Engineers later discovered more problems.

The garage owners have said that the garage is safe, and that Hufnagel's death is solely the fault of Jones. Officials promised to make the repairs requested by the city even though they disagreed with the necessity of them.

Jones' attorneys have argued that the garage is at fault. A counter-claim she filed against the garage owners was dismissed recently.

Jones' attorney, Stan Lee of Lexington, did not return a phone message Thursday seeking comment.

Reach Brandon Ortiz at (859) 231-1443 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1443.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service