PEACH COUNTY, Ga. — For 18 years, Isabella Alonzo’s room changed every year. It stopped changing in 2020.
Isabella lost her life after crashing into a guardrail on I-75 in Peach County. Instead of cushioning the crash, the rail impaled her car. Her parents said the guardrail separated her spine from her pelvis killing her.
“She should be here," said Cathy Alonzo, her mom. "She should be in college. She should be living her life.”
An 11Alive investigation found the guardrail failed because it was made with parts from different manufacturers that don’t work together. That created what’s called a “Frankensteined” guardrail. It’s the result of an installation error and should never be on the road.
Fighting for justice
The Alonzo family is suing the Georgia Department of Transportation. Even if they win, they said justice won’t be served.
“They have a limitation of $2 million you can sue them for and they don’t even want to do that," Isabella's father Mark Alonzo said. "My daughter’s life was priceless."
Attorney Michael Ruppersburg said the limit has not changed in two decades.
“If it was a private corporation they would be responsible for whatever a jury decided, but since it’s the state, we unfortunately have to deal with the caps,” Ruppersburg said.
It’s a $2 million cap for a death and a $1 million cap for a personal injury. It’s a limit that, he said, needs to change.
Fifteen states, including Washington D.C., have no caps. Ruppersburg said that cap could actually make roads less safe.
“If their ultimate financial responsibility is capped at $1 million or $2 million, it doesn’t provide much of a penalty or incentive to go out and proactively maintain their roadways,” Ruppersburg said.
A danger on the road
It is GDOT's responsibility under law to maintain the roads to ensure they’re safe.
“GDOT supervisors are supposed to do what is called ‘Ride the Routes.' Ride each route on their district on a regular basis. Some districts try to do that once a month. Some districts try to do it once a quarter,” Ruppersburg said.
11Alive uncovered the Frankensteined guardrail Isabella hit in 2020 was on the road for years. We found three other Frankensteined guardrails in Georgia, also on the road for at least a year that GDOT never caught until we brought it to their attention.
When 11Alive alerted the state to it, GDOT removed them within days.
"They weren't doing their job"
It wasn’t until after our initial investigation aired that GDOT announced it would inspect every guardrail in the state to make sure they’re safe. A move Ruppersburg said should have happened from the beginning.
“If they’re doing their job, they should be finding the Frankensteined guardrails like that," he said. "The fact that it was there for a year tells me they weren’t doing their job or they weren’t doing it well."
It's just another reason why Ruppersburg said it’s time for the laws affecting GDOT to change to ensure driver’s safety. It's a change the Alonzo family desperately wants to see.
“It’s just devastating," Cathy said. "We lost a child. Her brothers lost a sister. Her grandparents, her friends. People really loved her."
The legislature is in charge of setting the limits. It is not back in session until next year. 11Alive reached out to several lawmakers about this issue. No one provided comment.