Fallout from fatal tailgate crash unclear

Two days after a U-Haul truck ran over three people at the Harvard-Yale tailgate Saturday, killing one and injuring the other two, the causes and legal implications of the crash remain unclear.

The incident, which killed 30-year old Nancy Barry of Salem, Mass., appeared to be the result of a “vehicle malfunction,” said William Dow ’63, the New Haven-based lawyer representing the vehicle’s driver, Brendan Ross ’13. But U-Haul Company of Connecticut President Pete Sciortino said in a Monday statement to the News that Dow’s claim has no factual basis, and New Haven Police Department spokesman David Hartman called the conclusion “premature.” The NHPD’s accident reconstruction team is still conducting its forensics investigation into the U-Haul and its mechanics, Hartman added.

The truck, whose cargo area contained several beer kegs, was rented by members of the fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon and bound for Sig Ep’s tailgate outside the Yale Bowl when it swerved and accelerated, hitting the three women. Hartman said Ross was taken to the NHPD’s Union Avenue headquarters after the incident, where he passed a standard field sobriety test. The U-Haul truck, a Ford F-350 with a V10 Triton engine, has been impounded and is being preserved for inspection, Hartman added.

Ross, who was accompanied in the front seat of the truck by two male juniors, is not in custody and no charges have been filed against him. Dow did not respond to additional requests for comment Monday. When reached Sunday morning, Ross declined to comment.

Though Hartman said Sunday that the NHPD will not conclude its investigation for “some time,” intense media coverage of the incident has already prompted speculation about the legal consequences of the crash.

Jeremiah Johnson, an Olathe, Kan.-based personal injury and product liability lawyer who has previous experience with accidents involving U-Hauls and Ford vehicles, said some F-350 models with V10 Triton engines have been known to have closely spaced gas and brake pedals. A driver could accidentally push both pedals when intending to brake, he said, which would cause the truck to accelerate because of its engine and brake construction. A driver’s automatic reaction of pushing on the pedals harder would only cause the truck to speed up more, Johnson added.

Based on photographs of the truck, Johnson said it appeared to be a 2006, 2007 or 2008 Ford F-350 model with V10 Triton engine. As of Monday evening, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s website listed at least six complaints pertaining to pedal spacing and unpredictable acceleration in 2006-’08 models of the Ford F-350 with V10 Triton engine.

Eric Hageman, a Minneapolis-based personal injury attorney who handles cases involving truck accidents, said U-Haul could only be held liable for an accident like Saturday’s if it were proven that the company “did something wrong.” If, for instance, Ross was given the vehicle despite being unqualified to drive it, or if it could be shown that the vehicle was put on the road despite a known need for repair, a case could be brought against U-Haul, Hageman said.

If the problems with the vehicle were due to a manufacturing error and U-Haul did not alter the vehicle, Johnson said a case could be made against Ford rather than U-Haul.

In the event that the vehicle was not in proper working order when given to Ross, the victims of the accident could file a wrongful death or a personal injury lawsuit against U-Haul, according to Lawrence Buckfire, a Southfield, Mich.-based personal injury lawyer who also handles cases involving truck accidents. Ross could potentially file a case against U-Haul, assuming the truck were shown to be in faulty working order, if he could prove that he sustained “psychological injuries” as a result of the accident, Buckfire said.

But if the vehicle is shown to be in proper working order, U-Haul’s liability will be significantly reduced and the victims could sue Ross, Hageman and Buckfire agreed. But the two lawyers said the victims would be unlikely to file such a suit, considering Ross’s age and presumed lack of assets and substantial insurance coverage.

Hageman said that often, with accidents involving rented trucks, drivers are simply inexperienced and do not know how to operate the vehicles properly. He added that the Graves Amendment, a federal statute, substantially limits the liability car- and truck-rental companies face in the event of accidents if their vehicles are shown to have been properly maintained and loaned.

Brian Warren, executive director of Sig Ep national, who came to New Haven following the weekend’s events, said Monday that details about the rental, such as who had rented the truck specifically and whose money was used, were not yet clear. He added that while he and the national organization are “supportive of Brendan,” he did not yet know whether the fraternity would provide Ross with legal support.

It is not yet clear whether Ross will face any legal action from Barry’s family. Barry’s mother, Paula St. Pierre, said her top concern was simply “getting [her] child home” to Salem, Mass.

Barry was with two of her friends when she was struck by the U-Haul, which swerved and accelerated into the Yale Bowl’s D-Lot at around 9:39 a.m. before running over the three women and crashing into another, smaller, U-Haul. Barry was taken to Yale-New Haven Hospital shortly afterward and was pronounced dead at 10:16 a.m.

“We’re all devastated — how do you deal with the loss of someone that was your whole life?” St. Pierre said. “How do you lose your best friend, your best sister, your aunt?”

Barry, who graduated 6th in her class at Salem High School in 1999, had recently accepted a job with Bennett & Company, a lingerie company in Newburyport, Mass., where she helped design the company’s clothing, St. Pierre said.

Beyond her creative interests, Barry’s greatest joy came from her two nephews, ages four and six, St. Pierre said. The 6-year-old has not been “able to go to school” and the 4-year-old has been “very confused” since Barry’s death, St. Pierre added.

St. Pierre said she was not aware of the full details of the incident, just that her daughter was “hit by a U-Haul full of alcohol,” and that the U-Haul also struck two of Barry’s friends, 30-year-old Sarah Short SOM ’13 and Harvard employee Elizabeth Dernbach. Short was released from Y-NHH after being treated for leg injuries, while Dernbach was released from St. Raphael’s Hospital after being treated for minor injuries.

Neither Dernbach nor Short could be reached for comment Monday. Yale spokesman Tom Conroy did not return requests for comment about what action, if any, the University will take regarding the incident.

Antonia Woodford contributed reporting.

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