Lawyers trade accusations in Greyhound crash trial

For killing three young women in an overturned SUV, Greyhound should pay at least $6 million to their families, lawyers for the families told a Fresno County jury Monday in the closing arguments of the wrongful death civil trial.

But Greyhound’s lawyer contended the bus company owes the families nothing.

“What did Greyhound do to cause this collision? Zero,” Los Angeles attorney Dana Alden Fox said.

The gloves came off Monday in Superior Court with Fox accusing Fresno attorneys Jason Helsel and Stuart Chandler, who represent the families, of coaching witnesses. Helsel and Chandler accused Greyhound of destroying evidence.

A jury of six men and six women will begin deliberations Tuesday morning after Judge Donald Black instructs them on the law. The jury’s task won’t be easy since jurors will have to wade through four weeks of conflicting testimony about who was driving the Chevrolet TrailBlazer when it overturned.

The answer could be in the autopsy photographs of the mangled bodies. Both sides agree the three women had multiple cuts, bruises and broken bones from being hit by the bus and dragged across the highway. What’s in dispute is whether some of the cuts and bruises are from the seat belts and, if they are, whether they are definitive enough to show who was driving.

The predawn July 22, 2010, crash killed six people, including the occupants of the overturned TrailBlazer: Sylvia Garay, 18, of Dinuba; and Vanessa Gonzalez, 19, and Stephanie Cordoba, 20, both of Fresno. Bus driver James Jewett and two bus passengers also were killed.

In their final summations, Helsel and Chandler told the jury that Greyhound should be held liable for damages because the evidence clearly showed Jewett was speeding in the fast lane and he wasn’t wearing his eyeglasses when he plowed into the overturned SUV.

They further contended Greyhound’s own mechanics said Jewett’s bus had bad brakes, but supervisors wanted the bus on the road.

The crux of their case is that dozens of cars missed the overturned SUV.

Helsel and Chandler said 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.

They said Jewett was at fault because bus passengers testified he was speeding and had announced he was behind schedule.

Chandler and Helsel face an uphill battle because the California Highway Patrol has blamed the deadly crash on Garay, saying she was drunk when she overturned the SUV near the McKinley Avenue off-ramp. The CHP also contends Jewett was wearing his glasses and did nothing wrong because he couldn’t see the SUV in the dark.

Helsel and Chandler told the jury that the CHP investigation was filled with speculation because it didn’t have reliable evidence to conclude that Garay was driving. The CHP could have had the evidence, but the state agency failed to analyze the blood on the driver’s and front passenger’s airbags.

They also said the CHP blamed Garay because Greyhound had sued the CHP, saying its officers were too slow in responding to the SUV crash. The lawsuit was still 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’s 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.

Helsel and Chandler said several witnesses testified that Gonzalez, who had no alcohol in her body, was driving. Video from Garay’s cellphone that was recovered at the crash scene also shows Gonzalez was driving, the families’ lawyers said.

But Fox said the cellphone video was taken hours before the fatal bus crash. He also told the jury that Helsel and Chandler met with the witnesses before they testified that Gonzalez was driving. Fox said two witnesses Helsel and Chandler didn’t meet with said Garay was driving.

Fox also said Greyhound wasn’t hiding evidence. Fugger didn’t need to testify, he said, because the CHP had done a good job of reconstructing the crash. And regardless of who was driving, Fox said, Jewett could not have avoided the collision because the undercarriage of the SUV had no reflective material.

In his final summation, Fox said the plaintiffs 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 told the jury.

He said the evidence clearly showed Garay was “visibly intoxicated” and that Gonzalez and Cordoba willingly got into the SUV with her. “They made a tragically poor choice because they knew she had been drinking,” Fox said.

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.

If Greyhound is liable, Fox told the jury, wrongful death cases like this usually bring only $250,000 to $500,000 in damages.

But Helsel said Greyhound should be liable for $2 million in damages to Garay’s family. Chandler asked $2 million to $4 million apiece for Gonzalez and Cordoba’s families.

“All he (Jewett) had to do was pay attention to the road and the flashing lights and slow down,” Chandler said.

Instead, the bus “annihilated these three young women,” he said.

Both sides agree that 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 a friend’s birthday when the crash happened on the northbound fast lane of Highway 99 near the McKinley Avenue exit, shortly after 2 a.m.

After the Greyhound struck the overturned SUV, the bus continued on the highway more than 400 feet before going down an embankment and plowing into a eucalyptus tree, killing Jewett and passengers Epifania Solis, 60, of Madera, and Tomas Ponce, 79, of Winton.