An Arlington man whose wife was killed in a collision with a D.C. garbage truck three years ago has received $240,000 from the city after he contended that city officials negligently allowed the truck to be driven by a man with a record of more than a dozen traffic accidents.
Attorneys for Douglas Bernon, 34, filed papers yesterday in D.C. Superior Court dismissing his suit against the city after both sides reached an out-of-court settlement and Bernon was paid.
Bernon, who originally sought $6 million in damages, had filed documents describing 15 previous accidents involving the truck driver, 42-year-old James C. Shuler of Bradbury Heights, Md., while he worked for the D.C. government.
"I loved my wife very much, but it was time to close the book and move along," Bernon said yesterday. He said he understood that had the case gone to trial a jury might have awarded him more money, but "no amount of money really changes it."
Bernon said that while he believed Shuler was responsible for the accident, "I hold the city reponsible ultimately. I just hope the city will do something to make sure something like this will never happen again."
Bernon's wife, Abby, 30, a graphic artist for the Smithsonian Institution, was killed Sept. 4, 1980, when the van in which she was a passenger was struck on I-395 by the 20-ton tractor-trailer Shuler was driving. The Bernons had been married 10 weeks at the time of the accident.
Shuler told police he collided with the van after swerving to avoid another car. After the accident, Shuler was cited for changing lanes "without caution" and was charged with negligent homicide. He was acquitted in a jury trial in Superior Court.
Assistant D.C. Corporation Counsel Roberta Gross, who represented the city in the case, declined to comment on the settlement. City officials had denied any wrongdoing and acknowledged no liability in settling the case out of court.
Shuler, who has since been reassigned to a position as a D.C. Department of Environmental Services crane operator, could not be reached for comment.
Bernon maintained in his suit that city officials knew Shuler had a poor driving history but did nothing about it. Richard F. Moreland, head of the department's Solid Waste Management Administration, said in a deposition filed in the case that the system broke down with regard to Shuler's being allowed to keep driving.
At various times, supervisors had recommended transferring Shuler from his driving job but he was allowed to stay with warnings that he would be removed if he had any more accidents, according to documents filed in the case by Bernon's lawyers, Jacob A. Stein and Robert Muse. The city had challenged Bernon's right to present Shuler's driving history to a jury on legal grounds, but had not responded to the charges about his driving record by the time of settlement.
William B. Johnson, director of the Department of Environmental Services, said yesterday that aides reviewed employe driving records after a Washington Post article about the suit last December. Johnson, who supervises about 300 drivers, more than any other city agency, said the review was completed two months ago and that two drivers were discovered operating without licenses and both have been transferred to nondriving jobs.
"It certainly made all of us wake up to be more aggressive when we see any signals of poor driving," Johnson said.
Johnson described Shuler's driving record as "outside the range" of what was found acceptable in the recent review. He added that the department has recently arranged to receive reports of driving infractions involving his employes from Virginia and Maryland and that department drivers are now required to show a valid license to supervisors every three months, rather than once a year.