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Signage issues get Shaler man light sentence in drunk driving death

An Allegheny County judge declined to impose a lengthy jail term on Monday on a Shaler man responsible for a fatal drunken driving crash, citing potentially misleading construction signs as a possible factor in the wreck.

Common Pleas Judge John A. Zottola sentenced Zachary Ryan Schell, 23, to 48 hours in jail and five years of probation for offenses related to the May 9, 2009, crash that killed Damien Randolph, 27, of the North Side and severely injured Phillip Givner, 22, on the Fort Duquesne Bridge exit ramp.

The crash occurred on the North Side around construction for the North Shore connector. The signs are the subject of three civil lawsuits.

"This concern will be resolved in a civil matter with respect to whether or not there were directional signs that caused him to go in a way that he may not normally have gone," Zottola said. "Everyone in this matter has suffered -- some families will continue to suffer."

Prosecutors sought a minimum jail term of nine to 18 months. Schell pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, two counts of reckless endangerment and drunken driving. Also injured in the head-on crash was Robert Ritz, who was riding in the passenger seat of the car.

Court documents state Schell's blood alcohol level was .157 percent. The legal limit to drive is .08 percent.

Jan Baily, state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, called the sentence "a slap on the wrist."

"It sends a horrible message to anybody who elects to drink and drive. It tells them that the odds are working for them and not against them; it tells them that if they take the risk, they are highly likely to get a free pass," Baily said.

Schell's attorney, Michael Foglia, said his client was driving Ritz's car because Ritz was intoxicated.

"He's driving by the stadium with all the construction and he's following the signs and goes up the ramp," Foglia said. "I think the sentence was fair. You're going down the street and the sign says make a right turn. Is that your fault?"

Police said Schell was driving the wrong way in a 2007 Cadillac on a Fort Duquesne exit ramp when he collided with Randolph's Kia. Prosecutors said Randolph's blood alcohol was also above the legal limit.

A lawsuit filed on behalf of Givner states that conflicting traffic signs existed at the three-way intersection of Fort Duquesne Bridge off ramp, Allegheny Avenue and Reedsdale Street that caused drivers to turn into the off-ramp, going in the wrong direction.

The lawsuits cite several defendants, including PennDOT, the city of Pittsburgh, Port Authority, construction companies and bars.

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