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Family sues UDOT over teen’s death in sinkhole near Tabiona

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TABIONA, Duchesne County — The family of a teenager who died at the site of a massive sinkhole in eastern Utah is suing the Utah Department of Transportation.

The parents of Justine Barneck, Michael and Linda Barneck, filed a wrongful death lawsuit Tuesday in Salt Lake City's 3rd District Court seeking at least $1 million.

The sinkhole, more than 20 feet deep and 30 feet wide, was created when water backed up in an underground culvert running under state Route 35 near Tabiona.

On July 13, 2011, around 11 p.m. Michael Barneck was driving his daughter, 15-year-old Justine, and one of her friends to Altamont to meet her friend’s parents. At that time, there were no problems with the road.

On the way back home, around 11:45 p.m., the Barnecks’ vehicle slammed into the side of the sinkhole, killing Justine. Michael Barneck was injured and was treated at an area hospital. Another driver had actually crashed into the sinkhole before the Barneck accident.

At the time, UDOT contended that crews had worked on the road earlier in the day, but another storm caused the road to wash away.

"Got all the water off. We left. Everything was stable," UDOT spokesman Scott Thompson said last July. "Then we had another storm come through later on that evening and the road washed away."

The Barnecks claim UDOT was negligent for not posting some sort of warning in the area.

“The road collapsed as a direct result of the saturated fill and water pressure caused by the water that UDOT failed to eliminate or warn about,” the lawsuit states. “The resulting hole in the road was effectively invisible in the nighttime hours.”

Because of pending litigation, UDOT spokeswoman Mindy Nelson could not discuss specific details of the incident, but she did say anytime there’s a fatality on the road, it causes the department great concern.

“We were very saddened when we learned about this," she said. “We are always concerned about the safety of the people traveling our roads.”

She added that safety is one of the department’s top priorities and it will continue working as a department until its goal of zero fatalities is reached.

E-mail: aadams@ksl.com