Six residents of New Jersey have filed a federal lawsuit against Governor Chris Christie, the state of New Jersey, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and others over traffic jams in September.
The suit filed in federal court on Thursday appears to be the first civil claim over traffic that appear to have been caused as political punishment for the Fort Lee mayor.
Lawyer Rosemarie Arnold says she filed it after learning this week that lane closures on an approach to the George Washington Bridge were “deliberate actions.” She says that her clients were late for work and that one suffered a panic attack.
Christie has denied involvement.
The suit refers to the release of emails and text messages on Wednesday indicating Christie’s staff deliberately caused a traffic jam on one of the country’s busiest bridges to punish a political rival.
The traffic gridlock delayed emergency responders from attending four medical situations – including one where a 91-year-old woman died – thanks to the unannounced closures of access lanes.
Commuters and schoolchildren were trapped in back-ups for hours on the George Washington Bridge.
“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” Mr Christie’s deputy chief of staff, Ms Kelly, wrote in August in a message to David Wildstein, a top Christie appointee on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
“Got it,” Mr Wildstein replied. A few weeks later, Mr Wildstein closed two of three lanes connecting Fort Lee to the bridge.
Before the correspondence was released there had been speculation whether the huge traffic back-up was retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Mr Christie for re-election last autumn.
Mr Christie, a leading hopeful for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2016, said he was “embarrassed and humiliated” by the emails and text messages.
After the messages were reported on Wednesday, he cancelled public appearances and several hours later issued a statement saying he was “outraged and deeply saddened” by the revelations.
He said he was misled and he denied involvement. He told reporters overnight that he has fired Ms Kelly because she lied to him.
“We fell short of expectations,” Mr Christie said, adding that he was “stunned by the abject stupidity” shown in the incident. He said he is responsible for what happened and said he would to go to the affected town to apologise.
“I had no knowledge or involvement in this issue, in its planning or execution,” he added.
Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, called it “appalling” that the traffic jams appear to have been engineered.
Mr Sokolich said the gridlock put people in danger by holding up emergency vehicles, and he added that those responsible should resign.