Family blames fatal wreck on PennDOT’s failure to fix ditch

AUBURN, Pa. (AP) — Matt Neidlinger crested the hill of a narrow, twisty state road and found a nasty surprise waiting for him at the bottom.

The ditch was a couple of feet wide and spanned both lanes, and Neidlinger barely had time to brake when his work truck slammed into it. The impact severely jolted him and his passenger. In the mirror he could see his loaded trailer bounce and flail, its rear wheels briefly off the ground.

Somehow, Neidlinger maintained control and avoided crashing. But the near-disaster gave him a bad scare. He turned to his co-worker and said, “If they don’t fix that, somebody’s going to get killed.”

A few days later, somebody died going over that same ditch.

Now the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation is facing questions from the victim’s family and others about whether its work on that road caused the fatal crash. A lawsuit is expected.

“They are fully responsible,” said Brea Gingrich, the daughter of the victim, 50-year-old Leslie Gingrich. “This could’ve been avoided. It was just negligence on their end.”

PennDOT said it’s investigating the work done at the site.

Leslie Gingrich, a mother of three who was training to get her commercial driver’s license, was riding her beloved Harley to class June 4 when she hit the gully and wrecked. She wasn’t wearing a helmet, though a lawyer for the family said she suffered unrelated internal injuries.

The ditch she hit was weeks in the making, according to residents.

In May, a PennDOT maintenance crew had excavated that section of road while replacing a drainage pipe under State Route 895 near Auburn, in Schuylkill County. The crew backfilled the trench with stone but did not pave it, and the stone subsequently washed out, residents said. That created an unavoidable hazard across both lanes — a hazard that residents said PennDOT knew about but did nothing to fix.

Jesse Strausser was among many unsuspecting motorists to hit the rut in the days and weeks before the fatal crash.

“I thought my brother was going to fly out of the car,” he recalled.

Strausser, worried that a motorcycle rider would be seriously injured or even killed, said he alerted the nearest PennDOT office. The woman who answered the phone told him it wasn’t their first call about the ditch, he said.

“That makes me mad,” said Strausser, a retired heavy equipment operator with experience in road construction. “The state knew about it, so why didn’t they fix it? ... I feel so bad about that. Something should have been done.”

PennDOT has launched an investigation “to determine if all policies and procedures were followed,” said Sean Brown, an agency spokesperson. He declined further comment pending the outcome.

State police are working on a crash reconstruction, with a report likely months away. An initial crash report said Gingrich “attempted to avoid hitting a large depression in the stoned area of the roadway,” causing her to lose control. The narrow road has no shoulders to speak of, and there was no way for a motorist to go around.

The family’s attorney, Albert Evans, has put PennDOT on notice of a legal claim. He called the trench a “hidden danger” that was made worse by the lack of proper signage for westbound travelers like Gingrich. Evans said a witness to the crash reported that Gingrich was not speeding, though he is awaiting the results of the state police probe.

The road work that PennDOT performed at the site “was clearly inadequate, and they had a duty to get out there and fix that,” Evans said.

A crew did pave the ditch — soon after the fatal crash.

“It’s really sad,” said Brea Gingrich, “that it had to take my mom to lose her life for them to come and fix it properly.”

Michael Rubinkam
Michael is a Pennsylvania-based general assignment reporter.