A former Fresno taxi driver testified Tuesday that he didn’t see an overturned SUV on Highway 99 in Fresno until he was five feet from it.
And, within a second of seeing it, Michael Coupland told a Fresno County Superior Court jury, he saw a speeding Greyhound bus slam into the overturned Chevrolet TrailBlazer.
In the fourth week of a wrongful death civil trial, Greyhound’s lawyers began calling witnesses to defuse claims that bus driver James Jewett caused the horrific July 22, 2010, predawn crash that killed six people, including the occupants of the SUV — Sylvia Garay, 18, of Dinuba; and Vanessa Gonzalez, 19, and Stephanie Cordoba, 20, both of Fresno. Jewett and two bus passengers also were killed.
The families of the three women have sued Greyhound for negligence, contending Jewett was speeding in the fast lane and wasn’t wearing his eyeglasses when he plowed into the overturned SUV. They further contend the bus had bad brakes.
Their lawyers face an uphill battle because the CHP has blamed the deadly crash on Garay, saying she was drunk when she overturned the SUV near the McKinley Avenue offramp. The CHP also contends Jewett was wearing his glasses and did nothing wrong because he couldn’t see the dark undercarriage of the SUV before slamming into it.
Coupland’s testimony bolstered the CHP’s theory of the crash. But he also added confusion to what is turning out to be a difficult case for the jury because of conflicting testimony.
Coupland, 53, who now lives in Southern California, testified that he was driving his taxi in the middle lane of northbound Highway 99 near the Belmont offramp when he noticed a Greyhound bus about a mile behind him in the middle lane. He told the jury he had set his cruise control at 65 mph — the speed limit for 99 — but the bus kept inching closer.
When the bus got to within 30 feet of him, Coupland said he decided to change lanes. Around the Olive Avenue offramp, he testified that he turned on his signal “so the bus driver would know what I was doing.” He said after he accelerated to pass a slow-moving car to his right, he eased into the slow lane.
Simultaneously, the bus shifted into the fast lane, Coupland told the jury.
Initially, he said the bus hadn’t completed its lane change when it slammed into the overturned SUV. But on cross-examination, Coupland said the bus had made the lane change shortly after the Olive Avenue exit, well before it drove into the overturned SUV.
Coupland also contradicted a previous statement to the CHP. After the crash, he told the CHP that he saw three people inside the SUV. On the witness stand, he testified that he didn’t see anyone in the SUV. He explained that he had been up 24 hours when the CHP interviewed him.
Coupland also testified that he never saw any flashing lights or any car lights from motorists who had pulled over to help the women.
That’s in direct conflict with the testimony of Alan Helmuth, an IRS custodian, who testified earlier in the trial that he pulled over once he saw the SUV overturn. Helmuth has told the jury he turned on his emergency flashers and stood helplessly on the edge of the highway as he watched two women standing outside the SUV, screaming for help.
Helmuth said other motorists had stopped to help, but fast-moving cars prevented anyone from rescuing them.
Two to three minutes passed before the Greyhound bus rammed the SUV, Helmuth testified.
Coupland also said the overturned SUV straddled the fast lane and part of the middle lane. The CHP said the SUV blocked only the fast lane.
Coupland, however, was clear about the bus’ speed; he testified it was going 70 mph in a 65 mph speed zone when it struck the SUV.
Earlier Tuesday, a store surveillance video was played for the jury that showed Garay, Gonzalez and Cordoba in a Fresno liquor store purchasing alcohol with the aid of an adult friend. Stephanie Godoy Gonzalez and her brother, Francisco Hernandez Godoy then testified that they were with the three woman that night celebrating Stephanie Godoy Gonzalez’s 20th birthday.
Stephanie Godoy Gonzalez testified that she remembered seeing Garay drink a shot of vodka. She and her brother both testified that Garay was driving the SUV minutes before the fatal crash. They also said Vanessa Gonzalez was in the front passenger seat and Cordoba was in the back seat. Others have testified that Vanessa Gonzalez, who had no alcohol in her body, was driving.
But in his statement to the CHP, Francisco Godoy said Vanessa Gonzalez was in the back seat. On the witness stand, he also gave conflicting testimony about which way the three women were headed in the SUV.
Greyhound lawyers will continue to call witnesses Wednesday. One of the witnesses will be Fresno County pathologist Dr. Venu Gopal, who will testify about seat-belt markings on two of the three women.
Jewett, a 32-year veteran of Greyhound, was making a run from Los Angeles to Sacramento when he arrived in Fresno at 1:45 a.m.
About the same time, Garay, Cordoba and Gonzalez were wrapping up a night celebrating Stephanie Godoy Gonzalez’s birthday.
Both sides agree that the TrailBlazer was traveling north in the far right, or slow lane, just after 2 a.m. CHP investigators say skid marks indicated that the SUV swerved away from an exit sign at the McKinley off-ramp and veered into the center median. The SUV rolled and then came to rest on its side in the left lane, or fast lane.
After the Greyhound struck the overturned SUV, it careened down the highway more than 400 feet before going down an embankment and plowing into a eucalyptus tree, killing Jewett and bus passengers Epifania Solis, 60, of Madera, and Tomas Ponce, 79, of Winton.