Contrary to what the California Highway Patrol says, a streaking Greyhound bus could have avoided hitting an overturned SUV on Highway 99 in Fresno and spared the lives of six people, an accident-reconstruction expert testified Tuesday.
Tom Shelton, a retired sergeant and formerly CHP’s top expert who wrote the book on accident reconstruction, also told a Fresno County Superior Court jury in a wrongful-death civil trial that CHP Lt. Rob Krider was wrong to blame the July 2010 crash on a drunken teenage driver.
He said there was no solid evidence to support Krider’s conclusion that 18-year-old Sylvia Garay was driving. The CHP could have figured out who was driving, Shelton said, if investigators had sent the blood on the driver’s side and passenger’s side airbags to the California Department of Justice laboratory for forensic testing. But the CHP didn’t.
Shelton also told the jury that the CHP’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team did an inadequate analysis when it re-enacted the bus crash. The investigation focused solely on whether the bus could stop before it hit the SUV, Shelton said.
But if the team had tested the bus’ maneuverability, investigators would have learned that the bus could have changed lanes to avoid hitting the SUV, Shelton testified.
Appearing in the third week of the trial, Shelton picked apart the CHP’s investigative report on the crash. Jurors also got to see autopsy photographs of Garay and her two friends, Vanessa Gonzalez, 19, and Stephanie Cordoba, who were in the Chevrolet TrailBlazer, and an autopsy photograph of bus driver James Jewett. Those four and two bus passengers were killed in the July 22, 2010 predawn crash.
The families of the three young women have sued Greyhound for negligence, claiming Jewett was speeding in the fast lane and wasn’t wearing his glasses when he plowed into the overturned SUV. They further contend the bus had bad brakes.
The autopsy photographs are crucial pieces of evidence because they could help solve the question of who was driving. The plaintiff’s lawyers contend Gonzalez, who had no alcohol in her body, was driving.
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 celebrating a friend’s birthday. With the help of a friend, they had first gone to a liquor store in Fresno to purchase vodka and Four Loko, an alcoholic beverage.
The women then went to a friend’s home to drink. They capped the night by dancing at the Starline nightclub in the Tower District.
On their way home, the TrailBlazer swerved away from an exit sign at the McKinley off-ramp and veered into the center median, hitting it with such force that it cracked the cement and caused the SUV’s airbags to deploy. The SUV rolled and came to rest on its side in the fast lane.
Once the SUV overturned, Krider has testified, 2 minutes and 22 seconds passed before the bus hit it. 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.
Both sides have stipulated that Garay had a blood-alcohol level of .11, Cordoba’s was .05 and Gonzalez showed no alcohol. The legal limit for an adult to drive is .08.
The families’ lawyers, however, contend Garay, who is from Dinuba, let Gonzalez drive that night because Gonzalez is a Fresno native and knew the streets better. Gonzalez also is Mormon, so her religion doesn’t allow her to drink, they said.
To advance the families’ claims, Fresno attorneys Stuart Chandler, Jason Helsel, Mark Vogt and John Fowler hired Shelton, who spent 31 years with the CHP before retiring in 1998. He testified he has investigated more than 14,000 crashes during his career and that he was instrumental in writing policies and procedures for the CHP’s major accident reconstruction teams.
But on cross-examination, Greyhound lawyer Dana Alden Fox pointed out that Shelton hasn’t had any accident reconstruction training for the past 15 years, and the last time he taught at the CHP academy was 21 years ago.
In addition, Shelton admitted that he spent around 28 hours studying the case, while Krider has testified that his investigative teams spent 5,000 to 10,000 hours on the crash. Shelton said he has charged the plaintiffs’ lawyers about $4,110 for his work on the case, so far.
Before Shelton took the witness stand, lawyers fought over whether the autopsy photographs should be shown to the jury and whether Shelton was qualified to render an opinion about seat-belt markings on the victims.
Greyhound’s lawyers, Fox and Esther Pardo Holm, feared the photographs would prejudice their client.
Outside the presence of the jury, Judge Donald Black agreed that the photographs were disturbing because they show the victims’ battered bodies in the morgue. But he said the seat-belt markings are a crucial part of the plaintiffs’ case. “Out of concern for fairness, the jury should be able to see them,” Black said.
Black also ruled Shelton could give an opinion about seat-belt markings because he testified that he was familiar with such evidence. He also testified he has investigated charter bus crashes, but no accident involving Greyhound.
Before the photographs were shown to the jury on a large-screen television, the victims’ families left the courtroom.
In his testimony Monday, Krider, who authored the CHP’s 566-page investigative report, confidently told the jury that seat-belt markings on the victims’ bodies proved Garay was driving.
He deduced Garay was driving because autopsy reports and photographs of the three young women indicate Gonzalez and Cordoba had seat-belt bruises across their upper torsos from sitting in either the front or rear passenger seats. “It was a process of elimination,” he told the jury, noting that Garay had no seat-belt markings.
That testimony was different from what he said in a deposition last year, when he testified that no physical evidence linked Garay to being behind the wheel. His investigative report also doesn’t mention physical evidence tying Garay to being the driver.
Tuesday, Shelton told the jury he wasn’t sure who was driving because the CHP didn’t analyze the blood on the airbags. He said Krider wrongly concluded Garay was driving because the car belonged to her mother and because some witnesses had told investigators that Garay was driving. Shelton pointed out that the witnesses gave conflicting statements, not enough to put Garay in the driver’s seat.
On the other hand, seat-belt bruises on Gonzalez’s body appear to show that she was either in the driver’s seat or in the rear passenger seat behind the driver. The bruises on Cordoba show she was either in the right front passenger seat, or the rear right passenger seat, or in the rear middle seat.
Unlike Krider, Shelton said the autopsy photographs show a “wide-band bruise” that went from Garay’s right shoulder to her left torso that “could be from a seat belt.” If it is, then she is sitting in a passenger seat, Shelton told the jury.
Krider also has testified that the crash was unavoidable because the SUV’s dark undercarriage was facing oncoming traffic.
In his analysis, Krider figured Jewett had only 384.6 feet to stop. If Jewett had been going 65 mph, and it took him 1.5 seconds to react, he would have traveled about 143 feet before he hit the brakes, Krider told the jury.
That would leave him about 242 feet to stop the bus. Because of the braking power of the bus, it would need 326 feet to stop at 65 mph, so he would have hit the overturned SUV, Krider said.
He also told the jury that his team didn’t test whether the bus could change lanes safely during an accident reenactment because he feared the bus would roll over doing a sharp turn at 65 mph.
But Shelton, who has a degree in mathematics, told the jury that he used the CHP’s data in his calculations and found that Jewett had enough time to change lanes and avoid the SUV.
Shelton said Krider also erred when he said Jewett was wearing glasses. Both sides agree that Jewett was required to wear glasses while driving a bus. Shelton testified that the CHP didn’t take detailed photographs of Jewett’s face to see if he had injuries from wearing glasses.
An autopsy photograph also showed Jewett on the ground near his bus without glasses on, and a deputy coroner has testified that he found glasses in Jewett’s possession.
Shelton told the jury that it was more likely that Jewett had his glasses in his pocket when the crash occurred.
In his analysis, Shelton said Jewett didn’t do anything to avoid the crash; he didn’t hit the brakes or take evasive action.
But Greyhound’s lawyers and Krider have contended that the reason Jewett plowed into the SUV was because he didn’t see it.
On cross-examination, Fox asked Shelton if he thought Jewett would have made an evasive maneuver if he had seen the overturned SUV.
“Any reasonable driver would,” Shelton replied.
Shelton will resume his testimony Wednesday.