Chrysler Only Defendant Left in Pittsburgh Flash Flood Lawsuit

By JOE MANDAK | September 9, 2015

The city of Pittsburgh’s recent decision to pay $375,000 to settle legal claims brought by families of four people killed in flash flooding leaves Chrysler as the remaining defendant.

The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority, and the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority also previously settled, by paying a total of $2 million, the maximum allowed under state law.

The lawsuit was filed more than two years ago after Mary Saflin, 72, of Oakmont was swept to her death by a 9-foot wall of water on the city’s oft-flooded Washington Boulevard in August 2011.

Because Saflin was outside her stranded vehicle, no manufacturer was sued for her death. The remaining Chrysler claims were brought for the deaths of Kimberly Griffith, 45, of Plum, and her daughters, Brenna, 12, and Mikaela, 8, who drowned in their submerged minivan.

Alan Perer, the attorney representing W. Christopher Griffith, whose wife and daughters died, blamed the electronic windows for failing.

“If the windows don’t work, you can’t open the doors because of the water pressure outside the vehicle,” Perer told The Associated Press on Thursday. Safety advocates warn against hunkering down in a submerged vehicle because water will leak in, so the best thing to do is get out and swim to safety whenever possible, Perer said.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says about 500 people in the U.S. die every year in submerged vehicles, Perer said.

“Even if you saved 10 percent of those people, you’ve saved 50 people from death,” Perer said.

Perer said he hopes the suit will lead to design changes in electronic windows or, failing that, backup remedies that enable someone to escape if the windows fail. He’s also hoping Chrysler will publish safety tips for such situations in the vehicles or owners’ manuals.

Chrysler’s attorney didn’t immediately return a call for comment Thursday. Chrysler legal spokesman Michael Palese said the company has nothing to add to its previous statements. Palese has said the Griffith vehicle, a 2006 Chrysler Town & Country minivan, “meets or exceeds all applicable federal safety standards and has an excellent safety record.”

PennDOT paid $1 million to settle death claims; Alcosan and the PWSA have paid $500,000 each, Perer said. Those amounts are the maximum possible under laws designed to limit the liability of state and quasi-governmental agencies.

The Pittsburgh settlement, which must still be approved by the City Council, is $125,000 under the city’s $500,000 damage cap. Some $300,000 will settle the Griffith claims, while $75,000 is going toward the Saflin claims, Perer said.

When they filed the lawsuit, Perer and co-counsel Paul Manion said at least 30 flash floods had stranded vehicles in the same spot since one person was killed and 12 were injured in a flood June 9, 1951, but nothing was done to improve the road or storm sewers.

Since the suit was filed, PennDOT has installed three gates that keep traffic off the low-lying section of road. The gates are activated by water pressure sensors during heavy rain.

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