updated 8/29/2006 9:26:11 PM ET 2006-08-30T01:26:11

The family of a woman who was killed when 12 tons of concrete ceiling panels in a Big Dig tunnel collapsed onto her car filed a wrongful death lawsuit Tuesday against the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority and contractors that worked on the massive highway project.

In the lawsuit, the husband and oldest daughter of Milena Del Valle, 39, accuse the authority and various construction and design firms of negligence in her July 10 death. The lawsuit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court, does not seek a specific amount in damages.

"It's hard to imagine a worse set of circumstances, where someone is simply driving along and 3,000- or 4,000-pound concrete slabs, which are negligently affixed to the ceiling, fall down, crushing an individual to death while her helpless husband is unable to extricate her and finally manages to squeeze out of a 12-inch space himself as she suffers a painful death," said Boston attorney Jeffrey Denner, who represents Del Valle's husband, Angel.

"We are seeing a systemic problem where corporations, including multinational corporations, consider the bottom line/profit margin more important than the public's right to safety," Denner said.

The Del Valles were driving to Logan International Airport when part of the concrete ceiling of the Interstate 90 connector tunnel collapsed, killing Milena Del Valle. Angel Del Valle escaped with minor injuries by crawling out a window.

Investigators have focused on the bolt-and-epoxy system holding up the ceiling panels in those tunnels. Engineers have conducted pull tests to measure the strength of the existing bolts.

"This action is brought to compensate her next of kin, determine who is accountable for her death, deter the type of wrongful conduct that led to the accident and prevent similar accidents from occurring in the future," the lawsuit said.

Del Valle's family scheduled a press conference for Wednesday morning.

‘Negligent, grossly negligent and/or reckless’
The lawsuit claims that tunnel contractors, subcontractors and others involved in the project were "negligent, grossly negligent and/or reckless in selecting and installing more than 1,500 unsafe and defective bolts in the tunnel project."

"What happened to Milena Del Valle should never have occurred, and we are open to discussing this matter with the family and their attorneys," Jon Carlisle, a Turnpike Authority spokesman said in a statement. "Following the accident, Governor Romney was finally able to institute new leadership at the Turnpike Authority, and we will continue to make changes until we're satisfied that the Big Dig is safe and the agency is operating effectively."

The tunnel collapse ultimately led to the resignation of Turnpike Authority Chairman Matthew Amorello, who succumbed to mounting political pressure.

In addition to the Turnpike Authority, which oversees the Big Dig project, defendants named in the lawsuit include: Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff, the project manager; Modern Continental Construction Co., the company that constructed the I-90 connector ceiling; and Aggregate Industries, the project's largest concrete supplier.

Six former or current employees of Aggregate pleaded not guilty earlier this year to fraud charges for allegedly hiding the substandard quality of concrete used in the Big Dig.

Nancy Sterling, a spokeswoman from Aggregate, said the company had nothing to do with the concrete in the part of the tunnel where Del Valle was killed.

"Therefore, it is totally inappropriate that we would be named in this lawsuit," Sterling said.

The suit also named Gannett Fleming Inc., the tunnel design firm; Bechtel Corp., a construction and engineering management company; engineering and construction management company Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade and Douglas Inc.; Walsh Construction Co., which installed portions of the tunnel wall and ceiling; architectural, engineering and consulting firm HDR Inc.; and Powers Fasteners, which provided epoxy fasteners and anchoring materials.

Bechtel/Parsons Brinckerhoff released a statement that said, "We understand the Del Valle family's grief, and offer them our deepest and heartfelt condolences."

Modern Continental released a statement that the company has offered since the accident.

"We express our sincere condolences to the Del Valle family," the statement says. "Modern Continental is cooperating fully with the investigation into the cause of this tragedy. We are confident that our work fully complied with the plans and specifications provided by the Central Artery Tunnel Project."

Messages left for Gannett Fleming and Walsh Construction were not immediately returned.

Children live in Costa Rica
Del Valle's three children, including her oldest daughter, Raquel Ibarra Mora, 23, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, have hired the Miami law firm of Goldfarb & Gold to represent them. The children live in Costa Rica.

Del Valle was buried in her hometown of Moravia, Costa Rica, just outside the capital of San Jose.

Del Valle's death prompted tunnel and road closures and sparked a public furor over the $14.6 billion Big Dig project, which has been plagued by leaks, falling debris, delays and other problems linked to faulty construction.

The Big Dig, the most expensive highway project in U.S. history, buried the old elevated Central Artery with a series of tunnels, ramps and bridges. The project, which was supposed to be completed in seven years, had an initial price tag of $2.6 billion.

The connector tunnel and several ramps remain closed. An eastbound ramp leading into the Ted Williams Tunnel toward Logan International Airport reopened to the public after being closed for a month.

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