In the early hours of July 22, 2010, a Greyhound bus slammed into an overturned SUV on Highway 99 in Fresno, killing the three occupants of the SUV and three people on the bus, including the driver.
The California Highway Patrol blamed the horrific collision on 18-year-old Sylvia Garay, saying she was drunk when she lost control of her Chevrolet TrailBlazer.
But a civil trial starting Monday in Fresno County Superior Court could cast serious doubt on the CHP investigation.
The families of Garay, of Dinuba, and her two passengers — Stephanie Cordoba, 20, and Vanessa Gonzalez, 19, both of Fresno — contend Greyhound was negligent in the deaths of the three young women because bus driver James Jewett was speeding and the bus had bad brakes. They also point out that dozens of cars had missed the overturned SUV before the bus slammed into it.
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In the wrongful-death trial, they will also claim the CHP doesn’t really know who was driving the SUV because the bodies of the three young women were found on the roadway. The families want the jury to decide what damages Greyhound should pay.
“This was a tragic loss of lives that shouldn’t have happened,” said Fresno attorney Stuart Chandler, who represents Cordoba’s and Gonzalez’s families. Fresno attorney Jason Helsel represents Garay’s family.
Greyhound has spent more than $3 million to settle with the two dozen injured bus passengers and with the families of passengers Epifania Solis, 60, of Madera, and Tomas Ponce, 79, of Winton. Both were killed on the bus.
Greyhound contends it is not responsible for the deaths of Garay, Cordoba and Gonzalez. In court papers, the bus company contends Garay was at fault and the collision was unavoidable because the overturned SUV was hard to see on the darkened highway.
Chandler and Helsel say there is ample evidence to show Greyhound was negligent and that the CHP did a shoddy investigation.
“That will be one of the challenges for the jury — determining who was driving,” Chandler said.
The CHP determined Garay was driving because the SUV belonged to her mother. Witnesses also told CHP investigators that Garay was driving. But Helsel and Chandler contend other witnesses say Gonzalez, who had no alcohol or drugs in her body, was behind the wheel. To bolster the case, the lawyers have Garay’s cell phone video that shows Gonzalez driving hours before the fatal collision.
Regardless who was driving, Chandler said the bottom line is this: “The bus had time to slow down and avoid the collision.”
Helsel and Chandler contend Jewett was speeding in the fast lane — traveling 75 to 80 mph — when the bus slammed into the overturned SUV. They point out that other cars avoided the overturned TrailBlazer, or had stopped to render aid to the three woman.
“We have a witness (Alan Helmuth) who stopped on 99 and saw two of the three women already out of the wrecked SUV. They were yelling for help because their friend was trapped inside in the SUV,” Helsel said.
In his deposition, Helmuth said he wanted to help the three women, but cars were zipping around the SUV. He said he was on the side of the highway a few minutes before the fatal collision.
Helsel and Chandler said there is a logical explanation as to why the bus slammed into SUV. They said bus passengers heard Jewett saying he was running late on his route from Fresno to Sacramento. The lawyers said there also will be evidence that Jewett was in the fast lane and wasn’t wearing his prescription glasses.
In addition, Greyhound mechanics are expected to testify that Jewett’s bus had bad brakes, but their concerns were ignored by supervisors, the lawyers said.
Greyhound spokeswoman Lanesha Gipson said the company does not comment on pending litigation.
The trial before Judge Donald Black is expected to take five weeks.
Among the witnesses will be bus passengers who survived the crash; experts on why it happened; CHP Sgt. Rob Krider, who authored a 627-page report on the collision; and Fresno police officer Lee Harris, who was off-duty when he stopped along the highway and tried to help the women before the bus rammed into them.
The crash happened just after 2 a.m. on the northbound lanes of 99 near the Clinton Avenue off-ramp. 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.
“Everyone agrees that the people on the bus were killed or injured when it hit the tree,” Chandler said.
Jewett, who lived in Sacramento, was a 32-year veteran of Greyhound. He had been making the Los Angeles to Fresno to Sacramento run for at least seven years, Chandler said.
Though the crash happened in a darkened area of the highway, Jewett should have been familiar with the roadway, Chandler said. “We figure he had seen that stretch of the 99 hundreds of times,” he said.
According to the bus driver’s log, Jewett went on duty in Los Angeles at 7:30 p.m. and arrived in Fresno at 1:45 a.m.
While Jewett was making the Los Angeles to Fresno run, Garay, Cordoba and Gonzalez were celebrating a friend’s birthday. With the help of a friend, they first went to a liquor store in Fresno to purchase vodka and Four Loco, an alcoholic beverage. They then went to a friend’s home to drink. They capped the night by walking to the nearby Starline nightclub.
Chandler and Helsel said the three women never drank at the Starline; they wore bracelets that showed they were underaged. Because there’s no evidence of them drinking, Starline, which was initially sued, was dismissed from the case, the lawyers said.
Chandler and Helsel said there is other evidence to show that Gonzalez was behind the wheel.
Garay was from Dinuba and unfamiliar with Fresno streets, they said. Gonzalez was Mormon and didn’t drink. “Vanessa was the designated driver that night,” Chandler said.
Garay’s cell phone video shows Gonzalez driving around 10:45 p.m. — before they went to the nightclub. Witnesses say Gonzalez was behind the wheel before the fatal crash, Chandler and Helsel said.
The women were headed to Cordoba’s home. The CHP can’t be sure who was driving because the women’s bodies were too mangled, Helsel said, noting that the CHP could have done DNA testing of the SUV’s seatbelts, but didn’t.
At the time of her death, Garay had a blood alcohol level of .11 — more than the legal limit of .08 to drive, the Fresno County Coroner’s Office reported. Cordoba’s blood-alcohol total was .05 and Gonzalez had no alcohol in her body, court records say.
Both sides agree that the TrailBlazer was traveling north in the far right lane, or slow lane. CHP investigators say skid marks indicated that it swerved away from an exit sign at the McKinley off-ramp and veered into the center median. The vehicle rolled, and then came to rest on its side in the left lane, or fast lane.
In its report, the CHP says Jewett had no way to avoid colliding with the TrailBlazer because it landed on its side. The bus smashed into the the SUV’s dark undercarriage, the CHP said.
Krider, the CHP sergeant, said only 21/2 minutes passed from the initial crash of the Blazer to the bus colliding with the SUV. But Chandler and Helsel contend up to four minutes elapsed. . They said several cars avoided the Trailblazer by driving around it. Some motorists stopped to help, including Harris, the off-duty Fresno police officer, and another man named Vincent Thao.
Chandler said Harris testified in a deposition that he saw Garay trying to get out of the SUV before the bus slammed into it. “Harris did not see the bus take evasive action,” Chandler said.
Thao said in his deposition that he drove past the overturned SUV and stopped about 30 yards from it. He put on his emergency flashers. “He recalls looking back and seeing the bus going straight in the fast lane for about 400 yards before the impact,” Chandler said.
The lawyers also contend two different Greyhound mechanics recommended that the bus be taken off the road until its brakes were replaced. That did not happen, Chandler said, because “Greyhound supervisors were under corporate pressure to keep buses on the road.”
When the CHP released its findings a year after the crash, Krider said it didn’t appear that Jewett was speeding. He said the data recorder, or black box, in the bus could have provided Jewett’s speed and other information, but it was too damaged to give reliable information.
Chandler, however, said the evidence will show that Greyhound dispatched a lawyer from Los Angeles and a collision-reconstruction expert to the crash scene within hours of the collision. He said the CHP didn’t have the equipment to download the black box, so it allowed Greyhound’s reconstruction expert to do it. But the expert reported to the CHP there was no data in the black box, Chandler said.
In addition, Chandler said one bus passenger, Modesto veterinarian Avtar Singh Jandi, told the CHP that Jewett appeared to be driving fast after he left the bus terminal in downtown Fresno. “Dr. Jandi got up from his seat to tell the driver to slow down,” the CHP report says. Jandi looked at the speedometer and it showed 75-80 mph, the report says.
And passenger Robert Long Jr., a big rig driver from Stockton, said Jewett was “speeding from the time they left Los Angeles.”
Chandler and Helsel blamed Greyhound for putting up road blocks in the CHP investigation.
For instance, Greyhound declined to loan the CHP a bus similar to the one Jewett was driving, the lawyers said.
For the testing, the CHP used a 1999 bus; Jewett was driving a 2006 bus.
In addition, the lawyers said the CHP needed to blame Garay because Greyhound had sued the CHP, alleging that its officers were too slow in responding to the SUV crash. The lawsuit was still pending against the CHP when Krider told reporters at the July 2011 news conference that Garay was at fault and that it was not possible for officers to reach the crash scene before the bus ran into the TrailBlazer, Chandler said.
Greyhound’s lawsuit against the CHP was later dismissed. By law the CHP can’t be sued for mishandling an emergency, Chandler said.
“I firmly believe the CHP blamed Garay because it wanted to make her the poster child of the dangers of underaged drinking,” Chandler said. “But the evidence doesn’t support it.”