Concrete truck driver and Lafarge named in lawsuit

Concrete truck driver and Lafarge named in lawsuitMary Frances Stewart died in April wreck with cement truck BAY MINETTE, Alabama — The family of a former Baldwin County commissioner who died in a fatal traffic accident in April has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the driver of a cement mixer truck and his employers. The lawsuit, filed this month in Baldwin County Circuit Court, seeks unspecified punitive damages against Robert N. Sitler Jr., The Cement Co. of Columbus, Ga., and Lafarge North America of Herndon, Va. Sitler, 33, also faces criminal charges of manslaughter and driving under the influence of alcohol. His case awaits action by a Baldwin County grand jury. Advertisement Joseph “Buddy” Brown, the attorney representing Mary Frances Stewart’s estate in the civil suit, said he expects soon to begin gathering facts and questioning witnesses. He said his investigation will focus not only on the actions of the driver but also on the deficiencies of his employers. “Our inquiry will be a good bit more broad than the criminal case will be,” he said. Sitler, who lives outside of Pensacola, could not be reached for comment. Sam Jovings, who represents him in the criminal case but not the civil one, said his client remains distraught over Stewart’s death while maintaining that it was an accident. “Robert is very upset about this, very emotional,” he said. Eric Nix, the chief financial officer of The Cement Co., said his firm had no involvement in the April 17 wreck since Lafarge purchased his company’s operations in Mobile and Baldwin counties prior to the accident. But Brown argued that The Cement Co. shares in the liability since it originally hired and trained Sitler. Carroll Sullivan, an attorney representing Lafarge, said he has not seen the lawsuit and cannot comment on the specific allegations. But he said the firm purchased the facility where Sitler worked only 17 days before the accident. “This was a truly tragic accident, and Lafarge certainly regrets that it involved loss of life,” he said. “Lafarge has a history of being an extremely safety-conscious company.” Stewart, a one-term commissioner from Magnolia Springs who was running for re-elec tion, collided with Sitler’s cement mixer on U.S. 98 near Elberta during that foggy morning as she was driving her personal car to a breakfast honoring law enforcement officers in Lillian. Sheriff’s deputies arrested Sitler and charged him with DUI and manslaughter. A breath test revealed a blood-alcohol level of .01, while a blood test taken earlier pegged the BAC at .03. Both readings are well below the .08 legal limit in Alabama, but prosecutors have argued that even a negligible amount of alcohol is illegal since Sitler was driving a commercial vehicle. The civil suit makes similar allegations against Sitler and also accuses The Concrete Co. and Lafarge of negligence in training the driver and screening and background checks. Brown said he based those allegations on his experience representing accident victims. He said he hopes to obtain hard evidence through the information exchange known as the “discovery” process. “Frequently, accidents occur as a result of inadequately trained and incompetent individuals operating the vehicles,” he said. Jovings said Lafarge dismissed Sitler after a Baldwin County judge ordered, as a condition of bond, that he not drive any motor vehicle. “Because he is not able to drive, I believe that’s the principal reason he was released from his job,” he said. Jovings said such a condition on bond is extremely rare — perhaps unprecedented — for a DUI defendant with a relatively clean driving record whom prosecutors do not consider a flight risk. Defense lawyers have been unable to convince a judge to remove the restriction. Since Sitler lives in a rural area, Jovings said, he has been unable to get another job. “He’s too far away to walk anywhere,” he said. A trial date has not been scheduled for the civil case. By BRENDAN KIRBY Staff Reporter

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