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Ventura County

Trucking Firm Is Cleared in Fatal Accident

Dismissal: Prosecutors drop case because data from tanker's 'black box' show driver error may have caused crash.

September 24, 2002|TRACY WILSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Westlake Village trucking firm will no longer face a charge of manslaughter in connection with a February 2000 crash that killed one of its drivers.

Prosecutors moved to dismiss the charge Monday after further investigation revealed that driver error was most likely the cause of the accident, not poor maintenance by defendant R.P. Cummings Inc.

Patrick Hildebrand, 41, of Ventura died when he lost control of a company tanker truck on a steep grade near Santa Paula and crashed into a creek ravine.

An investigation by the California Highway Patrol concluded that the foot brakes failed because of poor maintenance.

Based on the CHP report, the district attorney charged the company with involuntary manslaughter and a state Fish and Game code violation for a 7,000-gallon crude-oil spill that fouled the creek. But as they neared trial, prosecutors received new evidence that prompted them to reevaluate the case.

Specifically, a consultant hired by the defense concluded that information captured in the truck's electronic control module, which recorded information in the last 90 seconds before the crash, suggested that the condition of the brakes did not cause the accident.

The data showed that the truck went into neutral seconds before the crash, rendering the brake system inoperable, according to the prosecution motion to dismiss the case. The defense consultant noted in an Aug. 24 report that Hildebrand had the truck in the wrong gear and rode the foot brakes down the grade, causing them to overheat. "Mr. Hildebrand was reportedly an experienced driver," the consultant wrote. "Yet the manner in which he drove down the grade on the day of the accident is perplexing."

New evidence also revealed that Hildebrand had been experiencing problems with his left arm before the accident and could use only one hand when driving his truck. A medical report dated less than a week before the accident shows that Hildebrand was instructed not to drive a company vehicle.

"The defense expert concluded that Hildebrand's medical condition could have contributed to the problems he had controlling the truck directly before the accident," Deputy Dist. Atty. Douglas Ridley wrote in the dismissal motion.

"The people did not have this new evidence at the time this case was filed or argued at preliminary hearing, nor were the people aware that the truck even recorded this data until the defense brought it to our attention," Ridley said.

He noted that the CHP did not seize the so-called "black box" from the truck during its investigation. It was discovered by the defense after the truck was released by the law enforcement agency.

A follow-up investigation by an expert retained by the district attorney reached similar conclusions and, according to the motion, "raised serious questions about defendant's guilt."

Ridley presented the motion in court Monday morning and Superior Court Judge Edward Brodie dismissed the manslaughter charge. Through its attorney, R.P. Cummings pleaded no contest to the Fish and Game code violation and sentencing was set for Nov. 15. The trucking company faces up to $250,000 in fines, attorneys said.

Outside the courtroom, attorney Robert McCord, who represents the company, said both sides worked together to find the truth and reach a fair compromise.

McCord said the company has suffered "devastating" financial losses. In addition to the anticipated fees from the criminal case, R.P. Cummings is being sued in civil court by Hildebrand's relatives.

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