Lawsuit continues in fatal crash of big church van
By Andy Furillo - The Sacramento Bee
Cruising at 70 mph through Kern County on northbound Interstate 5, Bill Brownell felt a shake in the back of the van and to his right. He turned around to take a look.
"He was concerned, alarmed – what was that noise?" passenger Alexander Bessonov testified last week in a Sacramento courtroom.
Brownell, 48, never found out. At the wheel of a 1993 Ford Econoline E350 15-passenger van, in a caravan of Fair Oaks church kids on a spring concert tour in 2004, Brownell lost control of the vehicle when his right rear tire's tread separated.
He steered left into the grassy median and tried to bring it back right. The van flipped sideways, rolled over four times, ejected Brownell and passenger Tony Mauro and left both of them dead on the side of the road.
Seven years later, Bessonov and five other plaintiffs are taking on the Ford Motor Co. in a Sacramento Superior Court civil trial. They say the van was dangerous and that Ford knew it yet did nothing to notify its customers about its alleged defects.
Riding higher, wider and longer than typical passenger vehicles, Ford's 15-passenger Econoline van has been the subject of numerous National Highway Traffic Safety Administration advisories over the past decade. The most recent advisory issued last year said the vans are prone to "a higher risk of crashes and rollovers if not properly driven and maintained."
Consumer advocates say the van also has been subject to hundreds of lawsuits. Plaintiffs' lawyer Roger A. Dreyer said the Sacramento case is crucial to holding the company accountable when, in his view, federal regulation of manufacturers has softened.
"As soon as we stop caring and stop holding (manufacturers) accountable for their conduct and lack of actions, then there's no one else out there to protect the public," Dreyer said.
Ford's two Costa Mesa attorneys on the case, Warren E. Platt and Daniel S. Rodman, declined to comment on the trial that will go into its 13th day today before Judge David W. Abbott.
Vans like the one in the Sacramento lawsuit are widely used to transport church groups and sports teams. The federal government has since banned their use "for school transportation purposes."
In the most recent cautionary bulletin, the federal government warned van owners to keep their tires properly inflated, watch for wear and tear and not use spare tires as replacements. NHTSA also said only trained drivers should operate the vehicles and that their improper or unbalanced loading increases the risk of rollovers.
NHTSA told passengers in the bulletin to "make sure you buckle up for every trip." Neither Brownell, who was driving the van for the first time, nor Mauro was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the fatal rollover.
Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood said in an interview last week that the 15-passenger Econoline vans are safe. He also welcomed the NHTSA advisories.
"We absolutely support any communication that supports drivers taking responsibility, to have trained drivers behind the wheels of these vans, that they be properly maintained as well," Sherwood said.
Tire recall notice an issue
In deciding the lawsuit, the Sacramento jury must wrestle with the plaintiffs' claim that not even a driver tutorial and buckled seat belts can make an inherently defective vehicle safe. They also have to determine whether it was up to Ford to make sure its dealers knew the Goodyear tire that was prone to separation had been the subject of a 2002 NHTSA recall.
Last week, a service representative who handled the Suburban Ford account for the Fair Oaks church before the 2004 accident said he was never told Goodyear had put out a recall notice to get the tire off the road.
"If Ford had communicated that information to me, … I would have informed the customers," testified Colby Wolnay, who now works at Future Ford. "Obviously, it was a very dangerous situation. The customer has a right to know."
The plaintiffs are expected to conclude their case by the end of this week, with Ford to follow with its defense.
Ford's lawyers, in their trial brief, said their evidence "will demonstrate that the church's van was not eligible for Goodyear's tire replacement program." The lawyers rejected the notion the company had any duty to notify customers about Goodyear's business.
They said the tread separation is "controllable if the driver simply takes his foot off the gas and coasts to a stop."
"Had Brownell simply applied the brakes while the van was on the roadway or coasted to a stop while on the roadway, this accident would not have occurred," the brief stated.
Most of suits have been settled
Brownell lost control of the van the morning of April 9, 2004, while the 125-strong Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church youth band and choir was on its way back from a weeklong road trip.
The party swung south through Hollister and into Southern California for stops at Camp Pendleton, the San Diego area, Disneyland and the Glendale First United Methodist Church before heading home.
Marlene Shirley, one of the plaintiffs, testified that either she or Tony Mauro usually drove the van on the church's road trips. She said Brownell normally took the wheel of an equipment truck for the music gear, but that she and Mauro had been up late with a sick crew member and were too tired to drive.
She said she tightened her seat belt – improperly, according to Ford's lawyers – and went to sleep when the van pulled out of a Jack in the Box restaurant at the bottom of the Grapevine. She woke up in the emergency room of a hospital in Fresno with a broken arm and severe abdominal injuries. She soon learned her two friends were dead.
Shirley's lawyer, William C. Callaham, asked her about her attitude for the future.
"I would hope everything would be fine, but I know some of the pain I feel has been going on for 7 1/2 years," Shirley, 50, testified.
"I'm a little concerned in the long run, as I get older, if I can keep up with the exercise and the things I do to keep the pain at bay."
Besides Ford, the plaintiffs sued the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the church, Suburban Ford, which serviced the van, and Sears, which sold the tire to the church.
The parties have reached confidential settlements with all the other defendants, according to Ford's court papers. Brownell's survivors settled with everybody, including the auto manufacturer, Ford said.
Sean Kane, a Ralph Nader-trained consumer advocate who has established his own firm, Safety Research & Strategies, Inc., said the 15-passenger van "has a unique position in the world of defective vehicles here in the United States."
"The 15-passenger van from the very get-go," he said, "was a vehicle that was cobbled together to meet a certain need but was never vetted in terms of safety. There really weren't any standards that were applicable to these kinds of vehicles."
Almost all the lawsuits have been settled out of court since a 2003 federal trial in Chicago where a judge found that Ford had withheld test results that showed the 15-passenger van was unsafe. Plaintiffs won a $15 million verdict in the case, according to Kane.
Statistics compiled by Kane's organization, and partially confirmed by NHTSA, show that over a nearly three-decade period, 15-passenger vans from all manufacturers were involved in 724 rollovers that killed 1,253 people and incapacitated 1,957 more. The survey period ran from 1981 to 2008.
The figures show recent advances have improved the vehicles' safety record. The advances include installation of electronic stability control devices that regulate the braking system, shoulder belts for rear passenger seats and better door locks.
Citing statistics from NHTSA, the Safety Research and Strategy group estimates that more than 500,000 15-passenger vans manufactured before the newer safety equipment was installed are still on the roads.