The family of Washington Rabbi Lynne F. Landsberg, who was seriously injured last year when the car she was driving skidded out of control on a patch of ice, yesterday sued the D.C. government for $75 million, alleging that officials failed to respond to repeated complaints about a broken water main that created the slippery conditions.
Landsberg, 48, was in a coma for more than five weeks after the accident and suffered permanent brain damage, vision problems and other injuries, according to her attorney, Robert S. Bennett. Despite extensive medical treatment, she requires constant care and supervision and has been unable to resume her normal activities, Bennett said.
"This is a tragedy which should never have occurred," Bennett said. "The District of Columbia government totally failed in its duty to the traveling public."
Landsberg, director of the Mid-Atlantic Council of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was driving her son to religious school when the accident occurred at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 10, 1999. Police said she was driving south on Reno Road NW, just past Warren Street, when she hit a large and invisible stretch of thick ice. Police said that she was not driving carelessly but that her car lost traction on the ice and rammed into a tree. Her son, Jesse Ward, then 8, was not seriously hurt.
According to the lawsuit, several neighborhood residents had repeatedly contacted employees with the D.C. government and the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority to complain about a water main break in mid-December on Warren Street that spilled onto Reno, freezing on the road. Neighbors even called a special hot line number, the suit said.
But "those pleas were ignored," the complaint said, with officials failing to either make repairs or post signs warning of danger. Roughly two hours before Landsberg's vehicle crashed, another woman lost control of her car on the ice, and it came to rest next to a tree. Police left that accident scene without posting warnings, the complaint said.
Libby Lawson, a spokeswoman for the Water and Sewer Authority, declined to comment on the suit, saying officials still were reviewing it late yesterday.
The accidents took place during a very cold stretch when the Water and Sewer Authority was dealing with numerous water main breaks. At the time, officials said that they had sent a crew to the site in response to the neighborhood complaints but that the workers erroneously reported that the break was from a one-inch service line, not a problem that required immediate attention. As it turned out, officials later determined that the ice covering the road was caused by a break in an eight-inch water main.
Landsberg, a leader in Washington's Jewish and interfaith communities, has been on a leave of absence from her job and never will be able to return to it, Bennett said.