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County held liable for deaths of children on flooded bridge

A rural Missouri county was found liable for $2 million in damages after a flooded bridge claimed the lives of two children, though the amount was reduced by more than half due to damage caps.

Jacob Luttrull was attempting to drive his Ford Explorer over Little Whitewater Creek in Bollinger County in November 2019 when the current swept his SUV off the roadway. Luttrull survived the incident but his two children, Kayden and Brantley, drowned. Their bodies were recovered hours later.

The children’s mother, Ellen Underwood, alleged the county was responsible for the lack of warning signs and guardrails and inadequate maintenance to clear debris that clogged openings in the bridge’s foundation and led to higher water levels.

“They have these low water bridges,” said Jacob Lawrence of Cook, Barkett, Ponder & Wolz, an attorney for the mother. “They are designed so that during a big rain, the water just goes over the top of them.”

Lawrence said that the county had failed to add proper vents under the bridge and did not make adjustments for making it longer over the years. He said it also lacked a depth indicator.

“It is really a dangerous condition because it requires drivers to try and gauge how deep it is,” Lawrence said. “Unfortunately, we discovered a lot of other similar incidents in the county at these bridges.”

He said Bollinger County blamed the children’s father for misjudging the depth and crossing when it was unsafe to do so. Jacob Luttrull was initially named as a defendant, but he died of unrelated causes at some point after the accident.

Though jurors awarded $2 million, the amount was reduced based on sovereign immunity to $919,786.

Al Spradling III of Spradling & Spradling, an attorney for the county, did not return a request for comment. An appeal has been filed in the case.

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$2 million verdict

Wrongful death

Venue: Cape Girardeau County Circuit Court

Case Number/Date: 20BO-CC00011-01/Oct. 25, 2022

Judge: Scott Lipke

Plaintiffs’ Experts: Ben Hosinski, Indianapolis (civil engineer); Jane Turner, St. Louis (forensic pathologist)

Insurer: MoPerm

Caption: Ellen Underwood v. Bollinger County, Missouri

Plaintiff’s Attorneys: Jacob Lawrence and Matthew Glenn, Cook, Barkett, Ponder & Wolz, Cape Girardeau

Defendant’s Attorney: Al Spradling III, Spradling & Spradling, Cape Girardeau