Greyhound settles several lawsuits over fatal 2010 Fresno bus crash

The Fresno BeeDecember 10, 2013 

Greyhound Lines Inc. has reached a $2.1 million settlement with the family of one of its passengers who was killed in a gruesome 2010 pileup on Highway 99.

It's one of more than a dozen lawsuits that sprang from the deadly crash in the early morning hours of July 22, 2010, in the northbound lanes of the highway near McKinley Avenue in central Fresno. The Greyhound bus struck an overturned SUV on the freeway, careened down a roadside embankment and plowed into a tree.

While Greyhound has reportedly settled a number of lawsuits by passengers aboard the bus, several continue to move forward in Fresno County Superior Court. Also facing continuing litigation are the state Department of Transportation and others who are alleged to bear some responsibility for that night's events.

The $2.1 million settlement was announced Tuesday by Fresno attorney Warren Paboojian, who filed a wrongful death suit against Greyhound on behalf of the wife and children of passenger Tomas Ponce,79, who died in the collision. Ponce's wife, Sinforosa, was also among the 31 passengers on the bus.

Steven Brady, a San Rafael attorney representing nine other passengers aboard the bus, confirmed that the bus company had reached a settlement with his clients, but declined to discuss the amounts of money involved.

"Greyhound and some of the passengers were successful in resolving their claims," Brady said Tuesday. "But there are still a number of cases going on. I'm hoping everybody's going to get this settled."

All of Brady's clients were passengers returning to the Sacramento area aboard the northbound bus when it slammed into a Chevrolet Trailblazer SUV that had overturned on the freeway just a few minutes earlier.

All three people in the overturned SUV were killed: driver Sylvia Garay, 18, of Dinuba and passengers Stephanie Cordoba, 20, and 19-year-old Vanessa Gonzalez, both of Fresno. Also killed were the bus driver, James Charles Jewett, 57, of Sacramento, and bus passengers Epifania Solis, 60, of Madera and Ponce.

Brady said the main focus of his clients' lawsuit was that the bus driver, Jewett, was driving too fast and "not driving within the range of his headlights."

"The bus never really braked before it hit the Garay vehicle," Brady said. "Most of my clients were asleep when the crash happened." When the bus went off the freeway embankment and hit the tree, "my people went flying. They had a traumatic experience." Brady said one of his clients, Carrie Guadagnola, was thrown about 40 feet from the bus, and "she's lucky just to be alive."

Brady said Greyhound has resisted taking responsibility in the crash, instead "pointing fingers at Caltrans, the California Highway Patrol, and Garay." Garay, the driver of the overturned SUV, was found to have been driving drunk. "They took the position that this was caused by underage drinking or driving," Brady said. As a result, the settlements were made on what he called a "compromised basis."

"None of my clients will walk away with any significant money," he said. "They're just glad it's over."

Sixteen separate lawsuits, as well as cross-complaints filed by Greyhound and Garay's estate, have been consolidated into one trial that is scheduled to start April 1. All of the sides were required by Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald Black to participate in mediation before the end of December.

A spokeswoman for Greyhound said the company could not comment on the settlements because of confidentiality conditions, nor would the company discuss the pending lawsuits.

In a statement released Tuesday, Paboojian said that evidence indicated that Jewett, the bus driver, "was allegedly driving at an unsafe speed and allegedly was not wearing his driving glasses at the time of the accident."

The settlement from Greyhound represents only a partial resolution of the case. The Ponce family still has claims pending against the estate of Sylvia Garay, and Caltrans.

Two other attorneys, John O'Brien of Elk Grove and Jeffrey Hughes of Santa Ana, acknowledged that Greyhound had settled with their clients who were passengers on the bus, but added that they were bound by confidentiality agreements not to discuss the terms.

"It's my understanding that there are only a handful of cases going forward" against Greyhound," O'Brien said. "That's welcome news for both sides."

While O'Brien and other suits name other defendants, "This case was all about Greyhound" and and its role as a common carrier "that owes the highest duty of care to their passengers," he said. Greyhound, he added, "is not admitting fault. That's how these settlements work."

There's no such settlement from Greyhound for the families of Cordoba and Gonzales, Garay's passengers in the SUV, "and by all appearances it will not be resolved" before trial, said Stuart Chandler, a Fresno attorney representing the families.

Similarly, a Los Angeles attorney representing relatives of Solis, the Madera woman who died on the bus, expects to head to trial in April with his case. "It seems like Greyhound has reached a settlement with most of the passengers on the bus," said Steven Archer. But Archer said pre-trial information suggests that Jewett, the bus driver, not only wasn't wearing his glasses, but had not had an eye exam since 2003. He added that bus drivers are required to have eye exams every two years.

"And Greyhound wants to say their corporate policy is that all buses in California have speed governors that don't let them go over 68 mph," Archer said. "We've got people on the bus who said they were so concerned, one of them stood up and looked over the driver's shoulder and he was doing 80."

"So there's speed, there's inattention, and there's bad vision," he added. "There's negligence per se against Greyhound."

Archer and other attorneys pointed out that Greyhound has its own cross-complaints pending against Caltrans and Garay's estate.

For those cases that move on to trial in April, a jury will be asked to determine the proportion of responsibility to be borne by Greyhound, Garay and Caltrans for the collision and aftermath.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.

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