published Saturday, December 1st, 2012

Tennessee bridge contractor seeks exoneration in drowning

A Britton Bridge construction crew works on one of the support pillars for a new bridge across the Tennessee River in Marion County.
A Britton Bridge construction crew works on one of the support pillars for a new bridge across the Tennessee River in Marion County.
Photo by John Rawlston.

Major East Tennessee contractor Britton Bridge LLC is trying to limit or escape liability in a worker's March 26 drowning at the U.S. Highway 41 bridge replacement project.

Abimael Contreras Martinez, an employee of subcontractor Gilley Construction, fell while crossing between two barges in the river and drowned, court records state.

Martinez's widow, Stephanie Mae Pinegar Ontiveros, seeks $3 million in damages in a wrongful death lawsuit filed in May in Marion County Circuit Court.

But Britton Bridge filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in September seeking exoneration under U.S. maritime law, claiming the company had no knowledge and was not in a position to know of the conditions under which the accident happened and therefore should have no or limited liability.

Gilley Construction has been named by Britton Bridge as a third party, records show.

Ontiveros' state complaint claims that Britton Bridge is liable as the owner of the barge, said her attorney, Jeff Bloomfield, of Memphis.

"They didn't have a gangway or other safe means of crossing between the two barges" or rescue equipment and lines available to help in case of accident, Bloomfield said.

Britton Bridge's Memphis-based attorneys, Ray Bratton and Elissa Mulrooney, could not be reached Friday.

According to U.S. District Court documents, the company seeks a ruling exonerating it or allowing it to offer Ontiveros the equivalent of the barge's value, no more than $45,750, under U.S. maritime law.

Martinez, 31, couldn't swim and lost his life preserver when he fell in, according to accounts in March from family and emergency officials. The water was about 55 degrees that day and was 60 feet deep where Martinez went under. His body was recovered the next day about 150 feet from where he fell in.

According to records, if the federal complaint seeking exoneration is approved, Britton seeks to otherwise be freed of other claims stemming from the accident, which the company contends was not related to wrongdoing on its part.

about Ben Benton...

Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...

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