Testimony wraps up in Greyhound crash trial

Testimony in the Greyhound wrongful death civil trial wrapped up Thursday with a safety expert testifying that a nighttime crash between a bus and an overturned SUV on Highway 99 in Fresno was unavoidable.

Carl Beels, who testified on behalf of Greyhound, said bus driver James Jewett couldn’t see the overturned Chevrolet TrailBlazer because he encountered “a dark object against a dark background in a darkened area.”

“It was a perfect storm,” he told a Fresno County Superior Court jury of six men and six women who will decide whether Greyhound or the SUV driver was at fault.

Closing statements in the trial are Monday.

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

The families of the three women have sued Greyhound for negligence, contending Jewett was speeding in the fast lane and wasn’t wearing his eyeglasses when he plowed into the SUV. They further contend the bus had bad brakes.

Their lawyers face an uphill battle because the CHP 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 .

Beels, who has a master’s degree in safety management and engineering technology, said concluded that the crash was unavoidable after reading the CHP report of the collision, depositions from bus passengers and witnesses of the crash, and from doing his own investigation at the crash scene.

He testified that only the drivers who saw the SUV overturn, and the drivers they warned with their brake lights, avoided hitting the SUV. Jewett had no warning, Beels said, pointing out that the SUV’s undercarriage had no reflective material to warn oncoming motorists.

Beels, who lives in Southern California, told the jury he was a “straight shooter,” meaning his opinion could be trusted. But on cross-examination he testified that he had been an expert for Greyhound before and in four other civil trials around the country he testified that the bus driver was not at fault.

He also told Fresno attorneys Stuart Chandler, Jason Helsel, Mark Vogt and John Fowler, who represent the families, that Greyhound will likely pay him around $85,000 for his expert opinion regarding the Highway 99 crash.

Testimony ended without Greyhound calling Thomas Fugger, an accident reconstruction expert, to the witness stand. Fugger, who was on the witness list, went to Fresno on behalf of Greyhound on the day of the crash to investigate. He also assisted in the CHP its investigation by trying to download information from the bus’s “black box.”

CHP Lt. Rob Krider said the black box information would have allowed investigators to learn Jewett’s speed at the time of the crash, whether he hit the brakes and whether he tried to avoid the SUV. But the data from the black box was unusable, Krider said, telling the jury that sensors on the bus that feed the black box were likely damaged in the crash.

In his testimony Thursday, Beels told the jury he often works with Fugger on Greyhound cases.

The families’ lawyers also told the jury that Greyhound has paid Fugger about $100,000 for his work on Highway 99 crash

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.

The three young women were headed home around 2 a.m., traveling north on Highway 99 in the far right, or slow lane when the SUV swerved away from an exit sign at the McKinley off-ramp and veered into the center median. The SUV rolled and then came to rest on its side in the left lane, or fast lane.

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.

Before excusing the jury for the weekend, Judge Donald S. Black told the panel that closing arguments and jury instructions will take all day Monday, so jury deliberations will commence on Tuesday.

For the plaintiffs to prevail, at least nine of the 12 jurors must find Greyhound at fault. The jury’s decision must be based on the preponderance of evidence — that the evidence is more likely true than not true.

The case is difficult because some witnesses have said that Gonzalez, who had no alcohol in her body, was driving when the SUV overturned. Other witnesses have testified that many drivers missed the overturned vehicle and had turned their emergency flashers and left their lights on to warn others.

Krider of the CHP, however, has testified that Jewett did not have enough time to avoid the collision.