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State found not liable in Northway fatal

Case sparked a push for improved cell coverage on I-87

January 27, 2012
By CHRIS KNIGHT - Senior Staff Writer ( , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

The state Court of Claims has dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit filed against the state by the family of Alfred Langner, the Brooklyn man who froze to death after his car crashed off the Adirondack Northway in January 2007.

Langner and his wife Barbara were returning home from a wedding in Montreal around 2 a.m. on Jan. 25, 2007, when their Lincoln Town Car veered off the road, struck an embankment, went airborne and came to rest in a grove of trees. Hidden from the view of passing motorists, the car wasn't discovered for another 33 hours, and they were trapped in it.

Unable to get cell phone service to call for help, Alfred Langner, 63, died of hypothermia. Barbara Langner survived but suffered severe frostbite and a broken back.

The incident sparked an outcry among politicians and the public over the lack of cell-phone service on a remote, 50-mile stretch of I-87.

A year after his father's death, Jeremy Marc Langner, the executor of Alfred Langner's estate, filed a $25 million wrongful-death claim against the state, claiming it was negligent in maintaining the highway.

A trial was held in April 2011 in Albany. An expert witness called by Langner's attorney, Nicholas Bellizzi, testified that the culvert essentially became a launching pad for the car and "constituted a hazard existing within the 30-foot roadside clear zone."

"If a guard, a properly installed guide rail had been installed in this area, that would have prevented the vehicle from getting to this culvert," Bellizi said, according to court documents.

A now-retired state Department of Transportation engineer, William Logan, testified on behalf of the state that a guide rail was not required at the site and that the culvert "conformed with good and reasonable engineering standards."

State Trooper Richard Hoff, who conducted an accident reconstruction investigation of the crash, testified that there was no evidence that the car's brakes were applied, leading investigators to believe that Alfred Langner was either distracted or fell asleep at the wheel. Neither he nor his wife was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash.

Judge Francis Collins, in a ruling filed in late October, dismissed the lawsuit, but not based on the testimony offered at the trial. He found that the lawsuit was untimely because the Langner family failed to file a claim or notice of claim within the required 90 days after Alfred Langner's death. The judge also dismissed the wrongful-death claim because the Langner family didn't provide financial documents or other information to prove that Alfred Langner's next of kin had suffered financial losses due to his death.

Even on the merits of the claim, the judge said dismissal would be required. He said the court was "unpersuaded that the drainage culvert constituted a roadside hazard."

It's unclear if the Langner family plans to appeal the dismissal of the lawsuit. A message left with their attorney this week had not been returned as of press time.

Cell phone service on the Northway has improved since Langner's death. Verizon Wireless is planning a network of 14 cell sites along the Northway. As of last summer, more than half of those locations had been activated. Other carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile have also built new cell towers or added antennas to existing towers along the I-87 corridor.



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