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Crash Probe Shows Firm Failed '97 Inspection

VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Accident: State is investigating whether brake failure caused garbage truck to hit van, killing two men. One family may file lawsuit.

October 02, 1999|TINA DIRMANN and HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The company that owns the truck involved in a fatal collision on California 126 has flunked state safety inspections twice in the past four years--and once had a truck taken out of service because of faulty brakes, state investigators said Friday.

The driver of the truck involved in Thursday's double-fatality accident said his brakes failed before the crash.

Rubbish Control Inc. failed all categories of a routine inspection in July 1997, according to David Woods, supervisor for the motor carrier safety unit of the California Highway Patrol.

Among the deficiencies, Woods said, was a pattern of poor preventive maintenance. Two of the nine trucks inspected were immediately taken out of service because of "imminently hazardous conditions," including one truck that had a leaking brake diaphragm.

"That's the kind of condition that could impair a truck's ability to stop properly," Woods said.

News of the trucking company's poor maintenance record outraged the family of Mucio Medina, who was killed Thursday night when the truck collided with the van he was driving.

"It makes me so mad, because maybe they could have avoided this," said 24-year-old Gloria Medina, the eldest of Medina's six children. "Something could have been done. But my dad never had a chance."

Family members said if investigators find the truck had faulty brakes, they will file a lawsuit against Rubbish Control.

Woods said all commercial truck owners are supposed to inspect their vehicles at least once every 90 days. He did not know if Rubbish Control officials did that, but pointed out that investigators in 1997 found two trucks on the lot in poor and dangerous operating condition.

"The law essentially is saying to the operator that you need to inspect your vehicles frequently enough to ensure they are safe," Woods said. "Their program was inadequate to do that."

Several calls to Rubbish Control were not returned Friday.

Other deficiencies cited in the July 1997 audit included inadequate records on the company's drivers. Supervisors for all commercial trucking companies are supposed to regularly review a driver's Department of Motor Vehicles record and ensure that the driver is properly licensed. The company lacked records to show such checks were being done, Woods said.

The company was given 90 days to improve conditions, and during a November 1997 follow-up audit, Rubbish passed all categories of the inspection, Woods said.

During a March 1995 review, Rubbish was given an unsatisfactory rating for equipment and maintenance practices, Woods said. It passed inspection during the follow-up audit three months later.

Woods said that if investigators determine that faulty brakes caused Thursday night's accident, such findings would prompt another inspection of the facility. However, Rubbish Control was due for its regular inspection next month anyway, Woods added.

"But generally speaking, with an accident of this magnitude, we'd go in and take a closer look at the company," Woods said.

Of the several hundred companies the motor carrier unit audits, about 15% to 20% get an unsatisfactory rating, Woods estimated. If the unit finds a pattern of negligence, Woods said, the CHP can recommend that the Department of Motor Vehicles pull a commercial operator's license.

CHP investigators said it will be next week before they are able to determine if the brakes failed during Thursday night's accident.

But authorities said the truck's driver, 21-year-old Ruben Magana, told investigators that his brakes did not work as he came down the steep slope on Toland Road leading to California 126.

"He said he put on the brakes, but the truck just kept going faster," CHP Investigator George Orozco said.

Magana, who has held his commercial driving license only a few months, had hauled a large trash dumpster to the Toland Road Landfill for a drop just after 3:30 p.m. But the landfill was closed, forcing the truck to head back down the road with a full load.

*

Unable to stop at the bottom of the incline, the 30,000-pound truck bounded onto the freeway and into a van carrying driver Medina, 47, and relative Fermin Ramirez, 31. Medina and Ramirez were killed on impact.

The men were on their way home from maintenance jobs at a Santa Paula packing company, where Medina had worked for about three years, relatives said.

A third person in the van, co-worker Jose Lucio of Fillmore, also known as Jose Perez Garcia, 38, was listed in critical condition at Ventura County Medical Center. He suffered a broken clavicle and a contusion to the brain, authorities said.

Magana was treated for cuts and a broken shoulder at Santa Paula Memorial Hospital before being released Thursday.

Prosecutors on Friday said it is possible someone at Rubbish Control could be charged with misdemeanor manslaughter if the truck had not been properly maintained. The truck's driver, however, could face the charge if the cause of the accident was driver error, authorities said. The charge carries up to one year in jail.

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