Trucker’s widow cites ‘secret wind policy’ as reason behind her husband’s fatal plunge off Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel

A late trucker’s widow is suing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel for a “secret policy” that she says led to her husband’s untimely death. 

Billie Jo Chen is suing the CBBT for $6 million on the grounds that CBBT staff made a mistake when they allowed her husband, Joseph Chen, to travel across the bridge with a near-empty trailer on a particularly windy day. 

47-year-old Joseph Chen died after falling off of the CBBT in Virginia on February 9th, 2017. According to The Baltimore Sun, Level 4 restrictions for 60-64 mph winds had kept tractor trailers off of the bridge for most of the morning, but just as Chen pulled into a parking spot to wait out the weather, restrictions were reduced to Level 1 – meaning all semi trucks were now allowed to cross the bridge. 

With the okay of CBBT police, Chen then headed across the 17.6 mile bridge along with 80 other semi trucks, but there was one thing that made Chen’s situation a little different from the rest of the traveling rigs – Chen’s trailer was nearly empty. With just 2,193 pounds of seafood, pallets and a pallet jack to weigh down his trailer, Joseph Chen headed across the CBBT and almost made it as far as mile marker 15 before the situation grew dire. 

According to Chen’s coworker and fellow truck driver, who was driving his own rig just behind Chen’s that day, Chen’s trailer was lifted off the roadway by a gust of wind and pushed hard to the left, sending it through the guardrail and off of the bridge entirely. Chen’s rig plunged into the water below and he was able to escape the waterlogged vehicle, but died anyway after becoming hypothermic and drowning. 

Billie Jo Chen’s suit states that the CBBT violated its own rules by allowing her husband to cross that day, and claims that the CBBT was operating under a “secret policy” that her husband was not aware of, preventing him from making his own safe decision. Under the “secret policy,” the CBBT determines wind restriction levels based on average wind speed, and doesn’t take into account wind gusts, which can show up all on their own, without the presence of a steady blow of wind. 

The CBBT has its own police force that makes decisions about when to restrict traffic along the bridge, making decisions based on a six-level policy informed by WeatherHawk stations placed at intervals along the bridge. Typically, empty or hardly loaded tractor trailers like Joseph Chen’s are prohibited on the bridge when winds exceed level 1 ratings, a rating that encompasses winds as strong as 46 mph. However, according to CBBT’s own logs from the day of Chen’s death, wind gusts as strong as 50 mph were recorded at the same moment Chen was allowed to cross the bridge. 

CBBT lawyers have not disputed this logging data, but do claim that wind gusts do not count when it comes to CBBT’s wind restriction policies, only average wind speed is considered. Because of this classification strategy, Chen and her lawyers claim the wind policy was kept a “secret” from the traveling public, who rightly assumes that CBBT is using wind gust strength in its determination of wind restrictions. 

Still, the CBBT counters that Chen caused his own accident by driving recklessly, and that they have sovereign immunity, like other governmental entities, shielding them from negligence lawsuits. If CBBT lawyers can prove that Chen was even 1% at fault, that may be enough under Virginia law to deem the CBBT ‘not liable.’ 

The trial is expected to last up to four days, with a verdict reached approximately a week after.