Families of the people killed and injured in a terrible accident almost exactly a year ago may soon take a first step toward justice with the announcement of an arrest in the case. According to television station KABC “the driver of a big-rig who allegedly caused a passenger bus crash that killed 13 people in 2016 near Palm Springs has been arrested in Georgia.”
As coverage of the accident in USA Today details, the driver “stopped for traffic in the far-right lane of Interstate 10 on October 23, 2016, and dozed off, authorities say. While (he) was sleeping, traffic began moving again, but his vehicle continued to block the westbound lane.” A tour bus hit the stopped semi-truck at a speed of 76 miles per hour the paper reports, citing court filings. The driver now faces “13 counts of felony manslaughter with gross negligence… 11 counts of felony reckless driving with injury and 18 counts of misdemeanor reckless driving with injury.”
Chillingly, USA Today adds: “Charging documents indicate he (the truck driver) has continued to work as a bus driver since the crash.” The paper also notes that the driver “violated federal regulations for truck drivers and falsified his driver’s log.” He had reportedly only had seven hours of “sleep opportunity” during the 24 hours preceding the crash, and “it is unlikely that he actually slept during those opportunities.”
Buried deep within the story, however, is another key fact: according to USA Today, authorities believe the truck driver “is not the person most at fault for the crash, an indication that investigators believe the driver of the tour bus was also at fault.”
This last point is a key element of the story, and should not be overlooked. While the bus driver does not appear to have been asleep at the wheel, the fact that authorities believe the bus driver may also have been at fault is a key legal point in terms of civil liability. The bus driver died in the accident, but since he was driving a tour bus it is legitimate to ask whether his employer had given him adequate training and rest and the extent to which his own actions as a representative of the tour operator or its sub-contractors contributed to the incident. A wrongful death action on behalf of the victims could do much to shed light on these questions. Indeed, it is worth asking whether both drivers may have been placed in their respective positions by unreasonable (and potentially illegal) expectations placed on them by their respective employers. As I have noted in this space in the past, the demands placed on commercial drivers of all types are often both unrealistic and unsafe. We see this often here in Oregon in the semi-truck crashes that regularly take place on Cabbage hill in the east of the state.
As a Portland attorney I hope that courts and the families involved will explore all of the legal avenues that ought to be open to them – civil as well as criminal – in the wake of this tragedy.
ORS 811.140: Reckless Driving