OCEAN CITY — The family of an Ocean City man struck and killed by a Maryland State Police (MSP) vehicle has filed a wrongful death civil suit against the trooper, the state and the Town of Ocean City.
During the October 2017 Endless Summer Cruisin event, Thomas Lawlor, 57, of Ocean City, attempted to cross Coastal Highway at 76th Street from west to east when he was struck by an unmarked MSP cruiser allegedly traveling at a high rate of speed in response to another incident. Lawlor was struck by the cruiser, operated by Trooper James Price, as he crossed the northbound lanes of Coastal Highway at 67th Street and ultimately succumbed to injuries sustained in the collision.
Last week, two years after the 2017 fatal collision, the decedent’s wife, Rennae Lawlor of Lewes, Del. and her two sons filed suit in U.S. District Court naming Price, the MSP, the State of Maryland and the Town of Ocean City as defendants. Price was named in the six-count suit for his alleged negligence leading up to including the fatal collision, while the other defendants were named for a variety of reasons including negligence in hiring and training the trooper.
The suit is seeking in excess of $75,000 in damages, to be determined by the court, for six separate counts. The counts included negligence, gross negligence, negligence in hiring and retention, a wrongful death claim, a survivor claim and, finally, a respondent superior claim. According to the suit filed last week in U.S. District Court, the trooper was traveling over 60 mph in his unmarked police cruiser without having the vehicle’s emergency lights or siren activated. The suit also alleges Price was looking down and not at the roadway in front of him just prior to the collision.
“The defendant was traveling at an excessive speed at all times leading up to and at the time of the crash, and at the time of the crash was traveling at least 22 mph over the speed limit,” the complaint reads. “Based on information and belief, the defendant was looking down in his vehicle during his approach to Mr. Lawlor, not at the roadway directly in front of him. Mr. Lawlor had crossed into the right northbound lane when the defendant swerved and smashed into Mr. Lawlor, sending him flying into the air and then crashing down into the pavement.”
The complaint alleges the unmarked Ford Explorer operated by Price at the time of the collision was not protected under the emergency vehicle statute because it was being operated without its lights or siren on.
“‘To the extent the Ford Explorer was not operated with a siren or lights activated, and therefore could not be considered an emergency vehicle, and to the extent it was operated maliciously and with gross negligence, the defendants, MSP, the State of Maryland and the Town of Ocean City are liable for the negligent operation of their employee and for negligently entrusting the vehicle to price when they had reason to know it would be recklessly used in a high-speed activity on a crowded street during an event where car owners are encouraged to ‘show off’ their vehicles and pedestrians are encouraged to walk along the street or sit on the sidewalk to watch the vehicles drive on Coastal Highway,” the complaint reads.
While the complaint implicates the MSP, the state and the town for allegedly knowing of the dangers of the motor vehicle event and not taking appropriate action to train and deploy its allied law enforcement officers during the event, some of the language in the suit appears to be an indictment of the motor-themed events in general, pointing out the problems in the past. In fact, Rennae Lawlor appeared before the Mayor and Council last October in the midst of the fall motorized special events season to make an impassioned plea to end them or at least curb some of the activity. The suit filed last week points out the legislation since passed by the General Assembly and the creation of the special event zone with reduced speed limits and higher fines.
“Defendants have been on notice of these prior safety concerns and have made efforts to curb the activities,” the complaint reads. “Legislators were so concerned with the ongoing safety risk to the public that bills have been introduced in their respective chambers of the Maryland General Assembly that could alter the way events such as Cruisin are handled in Ocean City. These bills allow the State Highway Administration to create designated zones during special road events to curb the danger to the public. Despite knowing the dangerous propensity of the Cruisin event, defendant Ocean City continued to allow the event to occur.”
The complaint also points out the subsequent creation of the motorized special event task force in Ocean City and some of the remedies it created.
“In the wake of problems that have occurred in the past, the defendant Ocean City created a motor event task force to address some of the issues that increasingly come with the resort’s car-themed events,” the complaint reads. “Despite the defendants’ concerns, the public health and welfare continued to be in jeopardy.”