Next to a rural road south of Fresno, a cross made of steel with four railroad spikes juts from the ground in honor of four people who were killed nearly four years ago when a car collided with a Union Pacific Railroad freight train.
Now, a wrongful-death civil trial that began Thursday in Fresno County Superior Court will determine whether Union Pacific was at fault for the deaths of driver Michaela Helen Smith, 19, of Sanger, and three passengers: Reuben Fernandez, 20, Angelina Maria Velasquez, 18, and David Alonzo Jr., 21, all of Fresno. A fourth passenger, Alexandra Sanchez Martinez, then 19, of Fresno was the lone survivor.
The trial got off to a horrific start: Jurors viewed a black-and-white video taken by Union Pacific that shows Smith braking at a stop sign and then the car slowly moving into the train’s path. Jurors heard the train engineer blasting the horn right before impact. The video then shows pieces of the car flying in front of the train’s windshield.
The trial is of public interest because the same street conditions that led to the deadly collision exist today and Union Pacific has done nothing to fix them, contend Fresno attorneys Warren Paboojian and René Sample, who represent the families of Fernandez, Velasquez and Smith.
The trial in Judge Donald S. Black’s courtroom is expected to take five to six weeks. A jury of 10 women and two men, as well as three alternates, have been selected to hear the evidence.
She didn’t see the train. She wasn’t trying to beat it.
Fresno attorney René Sample, who represents one of the victims
The collision happened during the early hours of Aug. 19, 2013, at an unguarded railroad crossing on Jefferson Avenue near Golden State Boulevard. The crossing has no warning lights or crossing arms to warn motorists of fast-moving trains, Paboojian and Sample told the jury. The area also has no street lights, they said.
The Jefferson Avenue train crossing is unusual, Paboojian and Sample said, because it is a private road that is primarily used by Zim Industries, a well-digging and irrigation-equipment business. There are red stop signs on both sides of the track, and white signs under the stop signs that say: “Private RXR Crossing. No Trespassing.”
Black, however, told the jury that the victims were not trespassing on the night they were killed.
Paboojian, who represents the mothers of Fernandez and Velasquez, and Sample, who represents the parents of Smith, have sued Union Pacific and Zim Industries for unspecified damages for negligence.
If Jefferson Avenue had been a public railroad crossing, Union Pacific would be required to have crossing arms or warning signs and lights. But once the railroad and Zim Industries learned that it would cost them $250,000 to install warning signs and crossing arms, they decided against it, Paboojian said.
Attorneys for Union Pacific and Zim Industries, however, contend Smith is at fault because she failed to obey a stop sign. In court papers, Union Pacific and Zim Industries say the California Public Utilities Commission only requires the stop sign and white warning sign.
“Clearly the train was visible to any motorist paying attention,” said Rocklin attorney Jacob D. Flesher, who represents Union Pacific and noted that the train had distinct headlights and its horn was blowing when the collision happened.
“If she had stopped at the stop sign, we would not be here,” said San Francisco attorney Charles H. Horn, who represents Zim Industries.
But Paboojian said Union Pacific’s own employees knew the crossing was dangerous. A key witness is R.L. Murray, who worked for Union Pacific for more than a decade. As he made runs up the Valley, Murray reported to Union Pacific officials in a computer log about the dangers of the Jefferson Avenue crossing, Paboojian said.
“He told them of a lot of near-misses and cars not stopping at the stop sign,” Paboojian told the jury. In fact, Murray told railroad officials nine months before the fatal collision of the dangers, Paboojian said. “Union Pacific. They did nothing,” he said.
Flesher, however, said one key statistic stands out: The railroad went 20 years without a fatality on Jefferson Avenue before the August 2013 deadly accident, and there hasn’t been a fatality since.
The collision happened during the early hours of Aug. 19, 2013, at an unguarded railroad crossing on Jefferson Avenue near Golden State Boulevard. The crossing has no warning lights or crossing arms.
The private road primarily serves Zim Industries and two farming families.
At the time of their deaths, Smith and Velasquez, graduates of Central High School, were enrolled at Fresno City College. Fernandez, a graduate of Clovis West High, had a job as a clerk for a local law firm. A California Highway Patrol report says the four and Martinez were at a mobile home off Jefferson Avenue on the east side of the tracks. Golden State Boulevard runs parallel to the tracks on the west side.
Paboojian told the jury there was no evidence of the group drinking alcohol or doing drugs. They went to the home to learn how to sell Vemma energy drinks.
Meantime, the Union Pacific train left Bakersfield and headed to Goshen to pick up empty grain-hopper cars, Flesher said. The 3,600-ton train then headed toward Fresno.
Flesher said the federal speed limit for the train is 70 mph. Because it was approaching Fresno, it was going less than 50 mph when the engineer hit the brakes right before impact, he said.
On the east side of the tracks, Jefferson is paved about 30 feet. The street then turns into a dirt road. There are no street lights near the tracks.
Shortly before 2 a.m. Smith and the others left the home and headed west on Jefferson Avenue.
The CHP report says Smith caused the collision when she braked but then rolled through the stop sign. The northbound Union Pacific train was going about 45 mph when it hit the driver’s side of the car, propelling it in a northwesterly direction, the report says.
The train’s engineer, R.D. Green, told the CHP that he had been sounding his horn at each crossing. Green also said he saw the westbound car on the tracks but could not avoid the collision.
The conductor, Austin Sickler, told the CHP that it appeared to him that “the driver tried to beat the train, then realized they would not make it and hit the brakes.” The occupants of the car appeared to look up just prior to the collision, Sickler said.
She did not stop. She did not look and she didn’t listen, as the law requires, and she caused that horrible collision.
Jacob D. Flesher, attorney for Union Pacific
But Paboojian and Sample said Smith was likely unaware of the train tracks because it was pitch dark. They also said she was confused by the stop sign. They told the jury that the street has no limit line to tell motorists where to stop before the tracks. They also said it was the first time Smith had driven in the area.
Though the word “Stop” is painted on the pavement before the tracks, the words are not reflective, Paboojian and Sample said. “Apart from painting ‘Stop,’ Zim has done nothing to give warnings to the public about the crossing,” Paboojian said.
The design of the crossing also is dangerous, the lawyers said. Westbound drivers like Smith approach the crossing at an angle that places an oncoming train behind the driver’s shoulder, he said. There also is no stop sign on Jefferson at Golden State Boulevard, so a motorist might think the stop sign before the tracks is for Golden State Boulevard, Paboojian told the jury.
Though the engineer did blast the horn, that was no sufficient warning for a young driver like Smith, Sample said.•
“She didn’t see the train,” Sample said. “She wasn’t trying to beat it. The evidence shows she hit her brakes and was slowing down.”
The stop sign and the white railroad sign are the minimum required by the PUC, Paboojian said. Even though Murray had voiced his concerns in writing, Paboojian said, Union Pacific officials never came out to the Jefferson Avenue crossing to assess dangers before the deadly crash. After the crash, Union Pacific and Zim Industries still did not want to take corrective actions to ensure public safety, he said. “Why? Because Union Pacific and Zim Industries didn’t want to pay for it,” Paboojian told the jury.
But Flesher said Union Pacific officials checked the Jefferson Avenue crossing in March 2012 – 17 months before the fatal collision – and determined “it was reasonably safe and in compliance with the law.”
He told the jury that Smith had just gone over the tracks a few hours before the collision to get to the mobile home. He also said Smith had ample warning signs: the stop sign, the white railroad sign, the words “Stop” in the street and the train’s blaring horn and its distinct headlights. “She did not stop. She did not look and she didn’t listen, as the law requires, and she caused that horrible collision,” Flesher said.
The trial resumes Monday.