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Some drivers stuck waiting 2 years for Turnpike goo settlement

| Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013, 7:28 a.m.
Erica Hilliard, staff photographer
A car damaged by an asphalt sealant leak on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on Nov. 22, 2011, sits in the parking lot at McDonald's in Harmar. Erica Hilliard | Valley News Dispatch

Two years after a 30-mile tar spill bogged down hundreds of vehicles on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, more than half of the damage claims still await approval.

Nearly 700 motorists have claimed damages from the 2011 incident in which a Marino Transportation Services tanker truck leaked asphalt sealant from New Castle to the Allegheny Valley exit in Harmar.

At the request of Travelers Indemnity Co., MTS' primary insurance provider, the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh is handling the claims process on its $1 million policy.

Attorney Thomas Frampton, the case's court-appointed special master, said about 300 claims have been paid.

He anticipates all claims to be settled by early next year.

“It's a gradual process,” he said. “A lot goes into the reviews and revisions, and we were slowed down by some other litigation. It's going to be a drag race, though, from here to the finish.”

Early estimates of the tar spill's damage exceeded Travelers' $1 million settlement. Travelers spokesman Matt Bordonaro would say only that the insurer provided the court with $1 million up front and is uninvolved with its distribution.

U.S. District Judge Joy Flowers Conti ruled late last year that the remaining damages would be covered by Hallmark Specialty Insurance Co., with which MTS has a $4 million excess liability policy. The Fort Worth-based insurer contested the decision through the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, but later withdrew the appeal.

Elaine Mican, assistant vice president of Hallmark, declined to comment.

The average cost of the claims is roughly $1,800, according to Frampton. At that rate, Hallmark would pay slightly more than $250,000.

As the case's special master, Frampton is tasked with determining how Travelers and Hallmark compensate those affected by the spill.

He said claims from individuals who paid for repairs out-of-pocket take top priority, followed by those who paid a high deductible with their insurance holders.

Joy Benusa of Oakmont falls into both categories but still hasn't received a settlement.

Her son, Gus, drove through the sealant on his way home from Wexford. After he pulled over and got out to assess the damage, he realized he had locked his keys in the car.

His father, former Oakmont Councilman Bill Benusa, drove to the site with a spare set of keys. His car was also damaged by the goo.

Benusa paid a deductible to Allstate on her husband's repairs, but paid out-of-pocket to replace the tires on her son's car, which was covered only for liability.

The repairs accounted for more than $500. But her claim, which she filed shortly after the incident, was reduced in court to $300 and has not yet been settled.

“It's ridiculous,” she said. “It's coming up on exactly two years, and I haven't seen a red cent.”

Frampton was unaware of Benusa's particular case, but said his office reviews each claim and reserves the right to make adjustments based on several factors — one of the reasons, he said, it's been a lengthy process.

“If you had tires with 50,000 miles on them, and you get brand new tires, you're not going to be fully compensated for the price of the tires,” he said.

The insurance providers that settled their client's claims, however, will be fully compensated, according to Frampton.

Erie Insurance Group, State Farm and Allstate provide policies to the majority of the affected drivers. Spokespeople from each of the insurers declined to comment amid the ongoing process.

Turnpike cleanup settled

The Travelers settlement also covered the turnpike cleanup.

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, according to spokeswoman Renee Colborn, secured a $51,500 settlement from the Connecticut-based insurer to recoup cleanup costs.

Crews resorted to using snow plows to peel the goo off the road. It was then shipped in barrels to a landfill that accepts hazardous materials.

MTS could not be reached for comment.

State police charged the truck's driver, George Delaney, in 2011 with leaving the scene of a crime and failing to secure a load.

Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reachedat 724-226-4673 or bashe@tribweb.com.

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