April 01, 2020

Lawyer likens Allagash crash to ’98 deaths

As an investigation continued into last week’s accident in which 14 forest workers were killed in the North Woods, a lawyer compared the accident with one in 1998 in which two men died.

Parallels between the two suggest there is something inherently wrong and risky with the way foreign forestry workers are transported to and from their jobs, said Evan Smith, a Portland lawyer who was involved in litigation after the 1998 case.

“When was the last time you heard about a van full of Portland lawyers dumping into the [river]?” Smith asked.

On Thursday, a fully loaded 15-passenger van plunged 20 feet from a one-lane bridge into 15 feet of water in the Allagash Wilderness Waterway. Fourteen men were killed, and one man survived.

On June 26, 1998, a tire on a van blew out and the vehicle rolled over on a remote logging road 45 miles west of Portage in Aroostook County. Of the 15 Mexican tree trimmers aboard, two died and 10 were injured.

Smith, who represented the estate of Lorenzo Soriano Cortes, one of the two victims in the 1998 accident, said the potential for legal liability in the more recent accident could be influenced by findings from a 1999 civil suit following the earlier tragedy.

Investigations by state and federal officials found that the 1996 van and its tires were in good shape at the time of the 1998 accident. The driver, they concluded, wasn’t at fault.

Cortes’ estate challenged those findings in U.S. District Court in Bangor. The case was dismissed after a federal judge found that claims of negligence and wrongful death were barred by provisions of the state’s Workers’ Compensation Act.

In a summary judgment, the judge said travel in the van was a risk inherent in performing the forest thinning operations in remote forest locations.

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