Lawsuit: Signal & speed limit caused fatal accident

(STEPHEN THOMPSON)   As Andrew Cavanaugh drove his 2004 Buick Century through the intersection on that bright sunny day in 2009, the 79-year-old was traveling at the posted speed limit.

It cost him his life.

The traffic signal was timed in such a way that a motorist had to be driving 30 mph to make it completely across the intersection once the yellow caution light turned red, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office.

Trouble was, the speed limit for the road Cavanaugh was driving on was 25 mph, according to the sheriff’s analysis. Cavanaugh had to have been speeding to get through the intersection, but he wasn’t. His Buick was T-boned on the passenger side by a 2003 Toyota Camry, and Cavanaugh died from his injuries.

Cavanaugh’s daughter Shannon Baker, the personal representative for his estate, has filed a lawsuit in connection with the wreck. On Tuesday, the Pinellas County Commission was officially informed of the litigation, and County Attorney James Bennett was given approval to fight it.

The wreck occurred on June 15, 2009, at Bayview Boulevard and State Road 580. The light is maintained by the Pinellas County Highway Department and owned by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Both the county and DOT are being sued, as is an insurance company, according to the lawsuit.

“My life is gone is the way I feel,” said Cavanaugh’s widow, Armaleen Cavanaugh, 83, as she struggled with an oxygen tank at her Oldsmar home during a recent telephone interview. “It’s very difficult after more than 53 years of marriage. That’s a long time to be with someone and suddenly they’re not there anymore.”

John Schaefer, an assistant county attorney defending Pinellas County’s role in the matter, said although the county maintains the light, its timing is established when it’s built and installed by engineers with the state Department of Transportation.

Since its installation in 1998, there had been no other reported problems with the traffic signal, Schaefer said.

“We can categorically say, there were no traffic maintenance issues involved,” he said. “It was regularly and well maintained by Pinellas County traffic management in accordance with DOT standards.”

A spokeswoman for the state agency declined to comment.

“It’s pending litigation,” said DOT spokeswoman Kris Carson. “Of course we can’t discuss it.”

In the immediate wake of the wreck, Armaleen Cavanaugh and her children told investigators Andrew Cavanaugh was a careful driver, though reports say he wasn’t wearing his seat belt when he crashed.

Armaleen told investigators he had a doctor’s appointment that day. At first, Pinellas sheriff’s deputies thought someone had to have run a red light before the collision. Later, however, traffic homicide investigators determined that wasn’t the case after they took a look at skid marks, where the two cars ended up and other evidence.

They found only three seconds elapsed between when the light for Bayview traffic turned red and the State Road 580 light turned green — and that’s not long enough for a car on Bayview to get across four lanes of roadway, the sheriff’s report says.

“The light was only on for three seconds, so he didn’t have a chance,” Armaleen Cavanaugh said.

Marie Jacqueline Stinson, the driver of the Toyota, then 71, also was driving within the posted speed limit.

“Excessive speed did not play a factor in this crash,” according to the sheriff’s report. “The Buick would have been unable to traverse the intersection safely while traveling at the posted speed limit.”

“The only environmental factor which contributed to this crash was the shortened all red signal from this traffic control device,” the sheriff’s report said.

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