For years, the California Highway Patrol has blamed a deadly crash between a Greyhound bus and an overturned SUV on Sylvia Garay, saying the teenager was drunk when she lost control of the Chevrolet TrailBlazer on Highway 99 in Fresno.
The July 22, 2010, crash killed six people, including Garay, 18, her two passengers, Vanessa Gonzalez, 19, and Stephanie Cordoba, 20, and Greyhound bus driver James Jewett.
Wednesday, the families of Garay, Gonzalez and Cordoba fought back: their lawyers told a Fresno County Superior Court jury in opening statements of a wrongful death civil trial that the CHP got it all wrong when it blamed Garay for the crash.
They said Greyhound was at fault because Jewett was speeding in the fast lane, wasn’t wearing his glasses, and the bus had bad brakes. They also pointed out that dozens of cars had missed the overturned SUV or had stopped to help the three young girls who were screaming for help before the bus slammed into it.
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“We’re not looking for sympathy. We’re looking for justice,” Fresno attorney Stuart Chandler, who represents Gonzalez’s and Cordoba’s families, told the jury. Fresno attorney Jason Helsel represents Garay’s family.
The trial in Judge Donald S. Black’s courtroom is expected to take five weeks. Much of the evidence will come from the bus passengers who survived the horrific crash and from the people who witnessed it. Other witnesses will include experts on accident reconstruction and bus safety.
On the hot seat will be Rob Krider, the CHP sergeant who authored a 627-page report on the collision. Krider has been promoted to lieutenant.
In opening statements, both sides agree the bus slammed into the TrailBlazer in the northbound fast lane of Highway 99 near the McKinley Avenue offramp during the early hours of July 22, 2010. The bus then 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. //(Before the trial, Greyhound spent more than $3 million to settle with the two dozen injured bus passengers and the families of Solis and Ponce.
Both sides agree that Garay had a blood-alcohol level of .11. (The legal limit for an adult to drive is .08. Garay was a minor, so she was not allowed to drink.) But what’s in dispute in the civil trial is whether she was driving and whether Jewett, a 32-year veteran of Greyhound, could have avoided hitting the disabled vehicle.
In a cross complaint, Greyhound has sued Garay’s mother, Olga Garay, saying she was negligent for lending her SUV to her daughter.
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 Loko, 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.
The women were killed shortly after saying goodbye to their friends who partied with them at the Starline.
After a yearlong investigation, the CHP announced that a drunken Garay was driving and the accident was unavoidable because the dark undercarriage of the SUV was facing oncoming traffic.
“It was a textbook drunk-driving accident,” Greyhound’s attorney, Dana Fox, told the jury in opening remarks Wednesday.
Fox noted that the SUV belonged to Garay’s mother and pointed out that friends of the three women have said in depositions that they saw Sylvia Garay drinking and driving before the crash.
Fox also agreed that the accident was tragic, but he asked jurors to put aside any sympathy they have for Garay, Gonzalez and Cordoba and their families. He asked them to decide the case on hard evidence.
According to Chandler and Helsel, Jewett had been making the Los Angeles-Fresno-Sacramento run for at least seven years. As a veteran bus driver, he should have seen the overturned SUV because other cars had stopped to help the three women and had left their lights or emergency flashers on, the lawyers said.
On the night of the accident, Helsel pointed out that one bus passenger said Jewett’s eyes were red and watery.
Chandler and Helsel also told jurors the evidence will show that Gonzalez, who had no alcohol in her system, was driving.
According to the CHP, the TrailBlazer was initially traveling in the far right, slow lane. CHP investigators say skid marks indicated it swerved from exiting at the McKinley Avenue offramp and veered into the center median. The vehicle rolled and came to rest on its side in the left, fast lane.
The CHP said 2 1/2 minutes passed from the initial crash of the TrailBlazer to the collision with the bus, but Chandler and Helsel contend up to four minutes elapsed. The lawyers contend the CHP really doesn’t know know who was driving the SUV because the bodies of the three young women were found on the roadway.
Helsel told the jury that it wasn’t Gonzalez’s fault that she crashed the SUV on the highway. He said Gonzalez had to take evasive action when she saw a wrong-way driver coming toward her on the McKinley offramp.
Greyhound is liable, Chandler and Helsel said, because bus passengers will testify that Jewett said he was running behind schedule and was driving at 75 mph to 80 mph when the posted speed limit on Highway 99 was 65 mph.
The lawyers also said two Greyhound mechanics will testify the bus had bad brakes and they wanted to take the vehicle offline for repairs. The mechanics made the recommendation to Greyhound supervisors a day before the crash and just hours before the crash, Chandler said. Greyhound supervisors overruled their concerns, Chandler said, “because they put productivity over safety.”
In addition, Chandler and Helsel said Jewett was required to wear corrective eyeglasses, but wasn’t. They said his last eye exam was in 2003 and witnesses will say Jewett had his glasses in his pocket when the crash happened.
Chandler said Jewett violated Greyhound’s policy against speeding. He also said Jewett didn’t use common sense. “He was going faster than what he could see in front of him,” Chandler told the jury.
During a courtroom break, Helsel said the CHP never told the public about the wrong-way driver that caused Gonzalez to overturn the SUV. He said he discovered it in the CHP’s lengthy investigative reports. “It was in the fine print,” he said.
Fox, however, told the jury that the witness who claimed to have seen the wrong-way driver was on the southbound side of the freeway — too far from the crash scene to be credible.
He also pointed out that the stretch of northbound lanes is dark and hilly. Testimony will show Garay, Gonzales and Cordoba were driving home, first going west on Highway 180, then north on 99.
From 180, Highway 99 dips below Belmont Avenue, rises slightly, then dips below Olive Avenue. It then rises and flattens out before the McKinley offramp.
Fox said once Jewett drove past the Olive Avenue offramp and reach the top of the incline, only 400 feet were between him and the overturned SUV, leaving him no time to avoid the crash. Though cars missed the overturned SUV, a bus doesn’t have the same maneuverability, he said.
Fox also told jurors that Jewett was well-rested for the Los Angeles-Fresno-Sacramento run, was wearing his glasses and wasn’t speeding. He said the CHP inspected the brakes of the bus after the crash and found them in good shape.
Fox said an expert for Greyhound will testify that Garay was driving. That’s because Gonzalez and Cordoba had seat belt markings on their body that show they were passengers in the SUV, he said. Garay didn’t have seat belt markings, because when the SUV struck into the center divider (before it overturned), the driver’s side airbag deployed.