•Jury voted 10-2 in favor of Greyhound in a wrongful-death case against the bus company by the families of three women who died in a 2010 crash.
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• Jury deliberated less than three hours after a six-week trial, then left without speaking to attorneys in the case.
• Families had sought at least $6 million from Greyhound but will get nothing.
Greyhound Lines Inc. was not at fault in a deadly 2010 highway crash in Fresno that killed six people, a jury ruled Tuesday in Fresno County Superior Court.
The verdict in the wrongful-death civil trial was a devastating blow to the families of Sylvia Garay, Vanessa Gonzalez and Stephanie Cordoba, who died in the horrific crash on Highway 99 when a streaking bus plowed into the young women’s overturned SUV.
The families sat in stunned silence when the verdict was announced. Some of them cried. Garay’s father, Victor Garay, shook his head no in disbelief. They were seeking at least $6 million in damages from Greyhound. Instead, they walked out of the courtroom with nothing.
Afterward, one of their lawyers put the loss in perspective.
“It’s a David vs. Goliath story, and this time Goliath won,” Fresno attorney Jason Helsel said.
The jury deliberated less than three hours before making its decision. After the verdict, Judge Donald Black asked jurors to stick around and talk with the lawyers. Instead of accepting the invitation, jurors rushed out of the downtown Fresno courthouse through a back door, leaving in their wake unanswered questions.
The predawn July 22, 2010, crash killed Garay, 18, of Dinuba, and Gonzalez, 19, and Cordoba, 20, both of Fresno. Also killed were bus driver James Jewett and passengers Epifania Solis, 60, of Madera, and Tomas Ponce, 79, of Winton.
After the crash, Greyhound spent more than $3 million to settle with the two dozen injured bus passengers and with the families of Solis and Ponce. But the bus company never offered a penny to the families of the three young women. So they sued Greyhound.
The trial pitted the Fresno law firm of Fowler, Helsel and Vogt, and sole practioner Stuart Chandler, against Greyhound, which hired one of the largest firms in Los Angeles — Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith.
During the trial, jurors learned that Garay, Gonzalez and Cordoba shared a common thread: they all had close relationships with their working-class parents and were pleasant, outgoing and hard workers with promising futures.
The parents of Garay and Gonzalez testified that their daughters were licensed beauticians who had dreams of owning their own business. Stephanie Cordoba’s mother, Ayda Cordoba, testified that her daughter had two jobs — one at Taco Bell, the other at a photography booth in Fashion Fair mall. At the time of the crash, Stephanie and her boyfriend, Jeremy Aguilar, now a Fresno police officer, had a young daughter and had planned to marry, her mother testified.
Over four week of testimony, the families’ lawyers contended Jewett caused the deadly crash, saying the evidence clearly showed he was speeding in the fast lane and wasn’t wearing his eyeglasses when he slammed into the overturned SUV. They further showed that Greyhound’s own mechanics said Jewett’s bus had bad brakes, but supervisors wanted the bus on the road.
The crux of the families’ case was that dozens of cars had missed the overturned SUV, so why couldn’t a professional bus driver do the same?
If Jewett had been wearing his glasses and paying attention, he would have seen that several motorists had pulled over and turned on their emergency flashers in an effort to help the three young women after the SUV overturned, Chandler and Helsel told jurors in closing arguments Monday.
They faced an uphill battle, however, because the California Highway Patrol blamed the deadly crash on Garay, saying she was drunk when she overturned the SUV near the McKinley Avenue off-ramp. The CHP also contended Jewett was wearing his glasses and did nothing wrong because he couldn’t see the dark undercarriage of the SUV.
Helsel and Chandler tried to discredit the CHP report, saying it was filled with speculation and lacked sufficient evidence to prove Garay was driving. They pointed out that several witnesses said Gonzalez, who had no alcohol in her body, was driving that night. A video from Garay’s cellphone that was recovered at the crash scene also showed Gonzalez was driving hours before the crash, the families’ lawyers said.
Greyhound attorneys Dana Alden Fox, Esther Pardo Holm and Matthew Patrick Harrison countered by reciting the findings of the CHP investigation. In his final summation, Fox told the jury that the families and their lawyers were not after justice, but were trying to win “the litigation lottery.”
“They are trying to cobble something out of nothing and they are asking for millions, “ Fox said.
The evidence, he said, clearly showed Garay was “visibly intoxicated” and that Gonzalez and Cordoba willingly got into the SUV with her. Garay then drove erratically on Highway 99 and hit the center divider and overturned the SUV, he said.
“You set the stage and you want justice,” Fox said mockingly. Greyhound did nothing to create this scenario, he told the jury.
Both sides agreed that Jewett, a 32-year veteran of Greyhound with a clean driving record, 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 a friend’s birthday. The crash happened shortly after 2 a.m. on the northbound fast lane of Highway 99 at the McKinley Avenue offramp.
After the Greyhound struck the overturned SUV, the bus continued on the highway for more than 400 feet before going down an embankment and plowing into a eucalyptus tree.
During the trial, Fresno County pathologist Venu Gopal testified that bruises on Gonzalez’s and Cordoba’s upper torsos were caused by seat belts from sitting in front or rear passenger seats. But Helsel and Chandler told the jury that the injuries showed Gonzalez was driving or were inconclusive. They said the CHP could have obtained the evidence to prove who was driving, but it failed to analyze the blood on the driver’s and front passenger’s airbags.
They also said the CHP was quick to blame Garay because Greyhound had sued the CHP, contending its officers were too slow in responding to the SUV crash. The lawsuit still was pending when the CHP did its investigation, the lawyers said. (The lawsuit was later dismissed.)
In addition, Greyhound never explained why its reconstruction expert, Tom Fugger, couldn’t download information from the bus’s black box for the CHP. The data would have given the bus’ speed at impact and whether Jewett hit his brakes or took evasive action. Greyhound had paid Fugger $100,000 for his work on the case, but declined to call him to testify.
After the verdict, Fox said he was pleased with the jury’s decision, saying there was compelling evidence that Garay was driving. But he also felt sorry for the families.
“There are no winners in this case because six people died,” he said. “No one will walk out of here celebrating.”
Chandler, who represented the families of Cordoba and Gonzalez, said: “Three young lives were cut short because of this terrible tragedy. We knew this would be a tough fight that required debunking a false narrative. The families are committed to seeking justice for their beloved daughters and we will explore our options in the appeals process.”
The jury was composed of six men and six women. The panel included a nurse, a farm labor contractor, a special-education teacher and a retired military man. At least two Hispanic male jurors said during jury selection that English was their second language. One female juror said she spoke Hmong. Eight of the 12 jurors said they were single.
A 39-year-old married woman who worked as a speech-language pathologist in the Clovis Unified School District was selected by the jurors to be the forewoman. In her jury questionnaire, she said some lawsuits are legitimate, but overall she felt there was an overabundance of lawsuits. She also said that while in college her car was destroyed in a collision and that her friend’s mother was killed by a drunken driver two years ago.
Ten of the 12 jurors voted for Greyhound, saying it was not at fault. In a civil trial, at least nine jurors must agree before a verdict is reached.
One of the dissenting jurors was a 24-year-old Hispanic man from Del Rey. In his questionnaire, he said he worked odd jobs and had no opinion about lawsuits. The other dissenting vote came from a 67-year-old Fresno woman who is a software engineer with a bachelor’s degree in biblical studies. In her questionnaire, she said sometimes people ask for too much money in damages.
After the verdict was announced, the families sat in the front row — where they have sat throughout the trial. “The jury left us with a lot of unanswered questions,” said attorney John Fowler, who represented the Garay family. “We would sure like to know what they were thinking.”
The Garay family and the Gonzalez family left without commenting to reporters who staked out the courthouse.
Helsel said the families showed a lot of courage standing up to Greyhound. They had waited nearly five years to tell their side.
“They’re devastated. They’re disappointed,” Helsel said. “But I think this trial has brought the families closer together. I’m hoping that it brings some closure to them now.”
Outside the courthouse, Ayda Cordoba said her daughter would be proud of her family.
“We were fighting for justice,” she said. “Though we didn’t get justice on Earth, we will get justice in heaven, and that’s all we care about.”