After four people were killed in a North County crash in December, a semi-truck driver involved in the accident erased his vehicle’s “black box” in an attempt to hide information about the truck’s mechanical defects, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed last week.
But an attorney for the trucking company says the now-deceased driver of the van that smashed into the truck tested positive for methamphetamine at the time of the accident and failed to yield to the rig as other drivers had done.
On Dec. 24, Crystal Lee Reuck, 22, was driving a 1992 Chrysler Town and Country van to a Christmas Eve dinner around 6:15 p.m. with three passengers: Taylor M. Swarthout, 22; Karen Michelle Szaz, 45; and David Castillo, 42. As Reuck drove south on Highway 101, just north of Paso Robles, truck driver Phillip Ken Trujillo of Las Vegas began to turn left onto westbound Wellsona Road. As the truck crossed the southbound lanes of the highway, the van hit the truck’s trailer, shearing off the top of the van to the dashboard, according to the California Highway Patrol.
All four of the van’s passengers were killed. Trujillo was not injured.
According to a lawsuit filed July 8 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court by the parents of one of the van’s passengers, the semi-truck’s mechanical defects, which included faulty gears, contributed to the accident.
The suit was filed by attorney Jim Murphy on behalf of John and Terri Swarthout, parents of passenger Taylor Swarthout. Defendants include Trujillo, trucking company Forward Air Solutions and the estate of Reuck, who it claims also contributed to the accident as the van’s driver.
Claims made in civil complaints only represent one side.
The CHP’s final investigative report was not available Tuesday. The CHP has recommended criminal charges, though it is not yet known what those are. Rob Bergsten, an attorney representing Forward Air, said the accident occurred when Reuck failed to yield to the semi, as other drivers had done.
“The CHP’s investigation found that although Reuck had ample time to avoid the accident, she took no steps to do so,” Bergsten wrote in an email to The Tribune.
According to the CHP’s traffic collision report, he wrote, Reuck tested positive for both methamphetamine and THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The three passengers were also witnessed to have taken meth in the hours leading up to the incident, Bergsten wrote.
While the lawsuit does say Reuck contributed to the accident, most of the complaint focuses on the truck.
According to the suit, both Trujillo and his bosses knew the truck had mechanical issues.
On Sept. 16, roughly three months before the accident, the CHP cited Trujillo and Forward Air for a safety violation regarding the truck’s defective air supply system, the suit states. On the day of the accident, the suit adds, air leaks in the 2012 International Prostar truck caused gears one through five to be inoperable.
“Defendant Trujillo had an affirmative obligation to cease the operation of the unsafe vehicle and had ample opportunity to do so,” the suit states.
Instead, Trujillo made a dangerous left-hand turn across Highway 101 at approximately 2 mph, the suit states, “effectively blocking the entire southbound lanes of U.S. 101.”
The suit, which seeks punitive damages, suggests that an attempted cover-up in the accident makes it both a civil fraud and a criminal homicide case.
“Shortly after the accident, defendant Trujillo was overheard talking on his cell phone by an employee of the California Highway Patrol, implementing instructions on how to erase information from the black box of the F.A.S. commercial truck,” the suit states. “The data was in fact erased.”
As CHP officers inspected the vehicles at the scene, the suit states, Trujillo was continually on his phone.
“Trujillo’s lack of attention established that he was not interested in assisting with this investigation,” the suit states, “but was more concerned with preventing any information from being uncovered regarding his culpability and that of F.A.S. in causing this collision.”
While the CHP could not retrieve data from the box, a CHP inspection revealed the malfunction to the gears and engine problems that could have impacted the rig’s acceleration, the suit states, and the truck had leaks in its brake system.
The lawsuit states that Trujillo drove a circuitous route from San Luis Obispo, taking three hours to cover 65 miles at an average speed of just under 22 mph. During that route, the suit states, Trujillo stopped four times.
While Trujillo admitted to the CHP that he pulled into the truck stop after his semi’s temperature gauge showed it was “hot” and after the “mechanical light” had come on, he proceeded to drive the semi afterward, the plaintiffs contend.
Bergsten said there were mechanical issues with Reuck’s van as well.
“Reuck’s van was found to have worn brake rotors that should have been replaced long before the accident; leaking brake fluid; mismatched, and over and under inflated tires; and other signs of poor maintenance that affected the vehicle’s operation,” Bergsten wrote.
Forward Air Solutions, a Tennessee company headquartered in Ohio, has a “satisfactory” safety record, according to data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, indicating no evidence of substantial noncompliance with safety requirements. The company also has a good safety inspection record, and the Trujillo accident is the only fatal accident the company has had during the last two-year reporting period.
According to the lawsuit, the company has stations in 92 U.S. and Canadian cities and an approximate market capitalization of $1.6 billion.