Navy veteran died after Google Maps led him off a collapsed bridge, lawsuit says
The Washington Post September 21, 2023
When Alicia Paxson left her husband behind at a friend’s house where they had celebrated their daughter Amelia’s ninth birthday, the plan was for him to help clean up and drive home later. But when the sun came up the following morning, Phil Paxson was still not home.
“Where’s daddy?” Amelia asked her mother, who told her daughter not to worry. “You know daddy. He is probably out helping somebody.”
But Paxson, a 47-year-old Navy veteran, died as he drove back alone on the night of Sept. 30, 2022, using Google Maps for directions. The family is suing Google for negligence.
Their lawsuit claims that Google Maps directed Paxson to travel via Snow Creek Bridge in Hickory, N.C. The Paxson family had recently moved from Florida, so Paxson was unfamiliar with the roads or that “a very large section of Snow Creek Bridge had collapsed in 2013 and was never repaired,” the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, claims the tech giant had been notified several times about the danger posed by the bridge but had not updated its directions.
“The bridge had no artificial lighting, and the area was pitch black at 11 p.m.,” the lawsuit says, adding that it was raining and Hurricane Ian was due to pass through the area. “Mr. Paxson’s vehicle drove off the unguarded edge of the bridge and crashed approximately twenty feet below.”
When Alicia Paxson left the party with their children, she took a different route than her husband. “There’s a place where you can go left or right. I went to the right, he went to the left,” she said in an interview with The Washington Post almost one year after Phil Paxson died.
The bridge was “unmarked” and “unbarricaded,” the lawsuit says. State troopers found his body the following morning in his overturned and submerged Jeep Gladiator, local media reported.
“Like so many motorists, Philip put his trust in Google Maps to safely guide him home from the children’s birthday party. His trust in Google Maps, and the failure of the road and bridge-keepers to do their jobs, cost him his life,” reads a statement from Saltz Mongeluzzi Bendesky, the law firm representing the family.
Their relationship was a “whirlwind” and “a fairy tale.” Alicia Paxson told The Washington Post on Thursday. “He was always positive. He would do anything for his friends.”
Paxson adored life, his widow said, though he knew how quickly it could pass by. “Hey! Come out here and enjoy the sunset. Come and watch the kids riding their bikes,” he would call out to her from outside the house, she said. “We want to enjoy every minute.”
“We have the deepest sympathies for the Paxson family,” Google spokesman José Castañeda said Thursday. “Our goal is to provide accurate routing information in Maps, and we are reviewing this lawsuit.”
In addition to Google and Alphabet, Google’s parent company, the lawsuit names a number of private property management companies and an individual, saying they are responsible for the “chronically neglected” bridge and the adjoining land.
A large portion of the bridge collapsed in 2013, earning it the name the “Bridge to Nowhere” among local residents. From a distance, Alicia explained, the road looks like it “just has a pothole in it.”
“We are filing this lawsuit as a matter of public safety,” attorney Robert Zimmerman told The Post on Thursday. “Those responsible for our roadways need to know that inaction has consequences.”
Zimmerman added that the family is seeking “compensatory and punitive damages” against those believed responsible for “taking Phil’s life.” Zimmerman said that Paxson was the “main breadwinner for the family” and that his death has caused Alicia and the couple’s two children “unimaginable losses.”
Zimmerman, who has visited the scene of the incident, described the road as “a cliff and a crater,” left that way for years.
“It would be one thing if the bridge washed out that night,” Zimmerman said. “We have evidence that for years, Google knew this was a road that was not passable.”
In almost a decade, no repairs were made on the bridge, the lawsuit states, adding that the road was also insufficiently lit.
“This isn’t a situation where Google couldn’t have known or didn’t have enough time to react,” Zimmerman continued. “There was all the time in the world to react, and it could have saved Phil’s life.”
The county and North Carolina Department of Transportation say that because the bridge is on a private road, they have no authority to fix it. The bridge was not maintained by local or state officials, the North Carolina State Highway Patrol said, adding that the original development company had dissolved, the Associated Press reported.
Two years before Paxson’s death, a local resident notified Google on two separate occasions via the “suggest an edit” feature that the bridge was damaged, according to the lawsuit. The resident received an automated reply that her comments were “in review,” but Google “took no action in response to the notice,” the lawsuit adds.
One month after Paxson’s death, Google was notified again about the hazardous directions, the lawsuit says. “Unbelievably,” it adds, the road was still depicted as passable as of April 2023.
Concrete barriers now block the road that Paxson drove down before he died, but only because locals installed them after the incident last year, Alicia explained. When asked what she wants from the lawsuit, Alicia Paxson said: “I want people to know it wasn’t his fault. For others to be safe.”
Paxson’s obituary described him as “larger than life” and “always ready for an adventure.” The tribute noted that the close-knit family “could have moved anywhere, but they chose Hickory.”